Root of Conflict Podcast

Why are some places affected by violence and disorder while others enjoy peace and stability? Root of Conflict analyzes violent conflict around the world, and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. Harris Public Policy students meet with leading experts and key stakeholders to discuss what can be done to create more peaceful societies.

This series is produced by University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts, (UC3P) in partnership with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. 

Root of Conflict


Disinformation and Democracy | Nina Jancowicz

How does disinformation fuel modern conflict? In this episode, we speak with Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. We talk about her debut book, How to Lose the Information War, which takes the reader through several case studies of how Western governments are impacted by Russian disinformation tactics and how to navigate the future of conflict. 

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema, and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world.

Reema Saleh: Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Reema Saleh: In this episode, Annie and I speak with Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation and a global fellow at The Wilson Center. We talk about her debut book, How to Lose the Information War, which takes the reader through several case studies of how western governments are impacted by Russian disinformation tactics and how to navigate the future of conflict.

Reema Saleh: As a note, this episode was reported in November of 2021 before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So, keep that in mind as you're listening. In the past month, we've seen misinformation and disinformation efforts ramp up. So, it's important to understand how these strategies work and what threats they pose. We also talk about her upcoming book, How to Be a Woman Online coming out April 21st on how to deal with gender harassment and abuse and online spaces.

Nina Jankowicz: My name is Nina Jankowicz. I'm a global fellow at the Wilson center, which is a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank here in Washington, D.C and I'm the author of How to Lose the Information War, which came out in 2020 and the forthcoming book, How to Be a Woman Online, which will be out in April of 2022.

Annie Henderson: Could you tell us a little bit about your first book?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, so this book came out of my experience when I was a Fulbright public policy fellow in Ukraine. I was lucky enough to be advising the government of Ukraine, specifically the ministry of foreign affairs and the spokesperson there on strategic communications and counter disinformation efforts in 2016 and 2017, which as you can imagine was a pretty interesting time to be in Ukraine.

Nina Jankowicz:I kind of felt, especially as the United States woke up to the threat of Russian disinformation specifically, but just kind of information warfare or online influence more broadly that we approached the problem with a certain hubris that I found really distasteful, especially from my seat in Ukraine. It was as if we thought we were the first country, the first people to ever deal with this problem, when that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Nina Jankowicz:Central and Eastern Europe had been dealing with disinformation, especially of the Russian variety for decades and had been really familiar with this new iteration of Russian online disinformation. And so I thought it would be useful to policy makers, but also to normal people who want to follow the news to understand how this phenomenon developed in Central and Eastern Europe and what the government and civil society there had been doing to try to combat it where they won and where they made, unfortunately, a lot of missteps as we tried to chart our own course in countering disinformation.

Annie Henderson:How are you defining disinformation? As you talk through all these different topics, I just want to make sure that our listeners understand the term that you're using.

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, absolutely. I'll give you kind of the lay of the land as I see it, because these terms often get used interchangeably, which doesn't do the listener or the viewer really any good and frankly confuses a lot of people.

Nina Jankowicz:I use the definitions that First Draft News use. They're a great organization that focuses on how journalists and the media can identify and counter disinformation. And the definition they use for disinformation is, "False or misleading information used with malign intent." Now, that's different than misinformation, which is similarly false or misleading information, but it doesn't have that malign intent behind it. So, we're in the holiday season now. We're all going to be seeing our family soon.

Nina Jankowicz:We've all probably have that one family member who traffics in conspiracy theories. They're not necessarily sharing disinformation; they're just sharing their crazy theories because they think they're interesting or they might have something to them.

Nina Jankowicz:That's misinformation. That's all a little bit different than propaganda or fake news. I try not to use the term fake news in any academic writing. It is in the subtitle of my book, which is Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict. That was something that my publisher insisted on as a signpost for curious readers. But fake news doesn't really describe the full breadth of information operations that we tend to see in this realm.

Nina Jankowicz:Often, the most successful disinformation campaigns aren't necessarily fake. They're not false and fully fabricated. They are grounded in emotion or a kernel of truth. So, let's take the coronavirus as an example. A lot of the distrust of the vaccine or distrust of government initiatives to counter COVID comes from a deep-seated distrust of either institutions or institutional medicine. If you kind of pull back the layers with people who are in the anti-vaccination community, that's what you get at when you get to the root of the problem.

Nina Jankowicz:So, it's not fully fabricated, it's playing on something that's very real for those people. And then propaganda is often thrown into the mix as well, but propaganda has a different meaning at least to my ear and that is propaganda is a little bit more for political purposes. It serves to support or promote one political ideology.

Nina Jankowicz:If you look at what Russia has done particularly in the last 15 years or so, they have supported groups and spread disinformation on all sides of the political spectrum. Sometimes directly working in opposition to one another, just to create polarization. That's very different than the propaganda that we saw during the Soviet period, which promoted the Soviet worldview, Soviet ideology, et cetera.

Nina Jankowicz:It's a little bit more like what China is doing today, promoting the CCP and Chinese ideology and a positive interpretation of how China is viewed in the world. A little bit different. I wouldn't call what Russia does, propaganda, at least in the international realm.

Reema Saleh:What makes new forms of disinformation so difficult to combat?

Nina Jankowicz:Well, I think what's happening today. What we see today is the use of disinformation paired with the micro-targeting technology that social media platforms offer and that actors like Russia or some domestic political actors have become expert at using. This means that pretty much anybody with a social media account and an understanding of these platforms and how they work can target their messages at exactly the people who are going to be most vulnerable to them.

Nina Jankowicz:Sometimes you can do that with the assistance of ads, but more recently it's become really easy to segment populations or to identify vulnerable populations simply through things like Facebook pages and especially groups. We've also seen a lot happening on messengers lately. So, things like WhatsApp or Telegram where people self-select into certain groups or channels, and once you're in, you can certainly message and broadcast your views to a group of people where there's trust for your messaging and where there's a lot less content moderation, right?

Nina Jankowicz:Especially on those encrypted platforms, unless you're in the group, the platform themself is not going to have any oversight over what you're doing. It makes it very difficult to combat. And then again, outside of the technological question, we're also looking at narratives that are very, very deeply seated in people's human distrust of systems, of governments, of science sometimes and a lack of understanding in how nuanced most events in the world are.

Nina Jankowicz:Things aren't actually as black and white as we like to make them out to be sometimes. And because of a lack of media and information literacy along with all the technological and social factors that I mentioned before, we kind of have this perfect informational storm, so to speak.

Reema Saleh:What misperceptions do people have about modern disinformation campaign?

Nina Jankowicz:I think the biggest one is that these are just silly cut and dry, false things that trolls on the internet make and they have no real-world implications. As I said before, these traffic and emotion and often they do drive people to take offline action. As we saw around the January 6th insurrection and a number of events during the COVID pandemic, the Reopen Movement and other protests that have inspired violence or threats to public safety. I think that's something that a lot of disinformation researchers have been warning about for a long time, because we've seen it happen in other countries. Again, the United States and a few other Western nations have approached the problem with such hubris that we thought our institutions are strong enough, we're going to be able to withstand this without the types of offline effects that we've seen in other countries.

Nina Jankowicz:And that's just been proven not to be true. There are two other kinds of demographic misconceptions that people have about disinformation. One, is that young people are going to be more susceptible to it because they use the internet more. What we actually find through a lot of data is that young people are a lot savvier about how they get their information. They understand that when they're watching their TikTok for-you-page, that that is not being generated organically, that the algorithm knows them and is sending them the content they're most likely to interact with and be engaged with and stay on the platform for and they recognize that and know how to navigate those platforms a lot better than let's say their grandparents do.

Nina Jankowicz:It's actually the boomers end up that have the most problems with information literacy. They're used to having a gatekeeper for their information. Having watched the nightly news for so many years and don't really fully grasp that on their Facebook pages or Twitter timelines, I doubt many of them are on TikTok, but if they are, that that is an especially curated stream of information, that's targeting them individually.

Nina Jankowicz:That is something that unfortunately, we have a lot to contend with and that population is voting more reliably than the younger folks as well who may not even have the right to vote yet. That's one demographic misconception. And then another one is that we often think that disinformation only targets folks on the right of the political spectrum and there are a lot of examples, especially from Russia in which disinformation targeted folks on the left. It's less frequent, but it does happen, and it doesn't mean that just because you're a registered Democrat or whatever, that you're immune from disinformation. You still need to take the same precautions online as folks on the other side of the political spectrum.

Annie Henderson:You talked a little bit about how disinformation is different than propaganda. I'm curious about where the modern concept of disinformation started. Is it really an internet age invention or does it have roots earlier than that?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, so Russia used disinformation during the Soviet period as well. Thomas Rid has a great book about Soviet era disinformation campaigns called Active Measures that I would highly recommend to anybody who's looking at it.

Nina Jankowicz:But in terms of our modern understanding of disinformation, certainly that began, I would say in the mid-2000s as the social media sphere was becoming more ubiquitous. A lot of the techniques that we see Russia using in particular, are holdovers though from the Soviet era. As Rid describes in his book, using these preexisting fishers and hot button issues and disagreements in society to further polarize, to further turn different sectors of society against one another, in order to gain political leverage is something that Russia has been doing since the Soviet period, since the early Soviet period we could say. I've been reminded by policy makers before that disinformation has long existed.

Nina Jankowicz:It's just a bit of a horse of a different color when it can travel as fast and as far and be as precisely targeted as it is with social media, with the platforms that we have today, where things can go viral in an instant and change our perception of events and make it very difficult to fact check or debunk after the fact in a way different than it would've been if newspapers were the ones being considered.

Nina Jankowicz:The famous example of Soviet disinformation campaigns that we often talk about is the Soviet operation to convince the world that aids was an American invention and that actually did gain some purchase, but it took a lot longer than it would have in the internet age because they had to launder their information through different print media and it took much longer to target certain populations abroad, especially and it was much, much more connected with kind of covert operations than the things that we see today, where a lot of these campaigns are kind of farmed out to different non-state actors like the Internet Research Agency, for instance.

Nina Jankowicz:So, disinformation as a concept has been around for a while. The Russian variety has some certain hallmarks to it and certainly is buoyed by the technology that's available today.

Reema Saleh:You compare the United States approach to tackling disinformation, to playing a game of whac-a-mole. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Nina Jankowicz:Sure. I actually call it whac-a-troll because I think that's kind of funny. But what I think we have been focused on basically since the very beginning when we figured out that Russia was attempting to influence the elections is removing fake accounts and posts that are harmful. There's been a lot of focus on that during the COVID pandemic as well.

Nina Jankowicz:But it's not a very systematic approach. It means that we are constantly on the back foot, constantly reactive, and it also means that essentially, we're always going to be chasing after these inauthentic actors who really have no reason not to continue to create fake accounts, not to continue to put out misleading information because the cost is very, very low for them. It takes much, much more effort to identify these fake accounts and identify the harmful posts than it does to create them.

Nina Jankowicz:And so, while it is important to put pressure on the social media platforms, I'm not making excuses for them here to make sure that they're identifying that content as quickly as possible and removing what it goes against their terms of service. But we also need to think more holistically. So, like how can we dis-incentivize actors like Russia from creating this content in the first place? thinking about that. Not that I think punitive measures are the end all, be all. These operations cost very little for Russia and for other countries.

Nina Jankowicz:So that is part of the toolkit, but not the panacea. We also need to think about how to educate our populations so that they're going to fall for these things less. There was such a debate. It feels like a long time ago now, but for most of the Trump administration, there is a big disagreement in Washington as to whether Russian disinformation was something we should worry about or not or whether it even happened.

Nina Jankowicz:It did happen. There's plenty of open-source evidence to that fact. And it certainly bothers me that an adversarial nation was attempting to influence our electoral discourse and I hope that any voting American would agree that that's not something that we should be okay with.

Nina Jankowicz:Instead, we just kind of looked at our shoes and allowed the hole that we're in to get even deeper. So rather than thinking about those generational ideas, those generational investments that we need to make that countries like Ukraine or Estonia or Finland in Sweden have been making, been in the case of Finland and Sweden, for generations in the case of Estonia and Ukraine for less time, but certainly making a large impact, we've been and cool in our heels. I think that is really, really unfortunate. And instead creating all this hubbub about removing content when that's only part of the solution.

Annie Henderson:Speaking of these other countries, I love how in your book, you don't just talk about the US, you talk about how a variety of countries are addressing the disinformation problem. I'm curious, do you see one approach emerging as the best in class? The gold standard for managing disinformation?

Nina Jankowicz:The best approaches all have things that are in common. I think of the countries that I look at in my book, which are Estonia, Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, Estonia has of course the privilege of being the first that Russia hit with some of these campaigns way back in 2007. They've got hindsight. They have really developed some systems that are quite robust, and their systems not only look at internet security, as we've probably all heard about. I'm sure this is very erudite audience, Estonian votes online. They have a lot of their government services online.

Nina Jankowicz:As a result, they're quite the leaders in cybersecurity in the trans all into community, but it's not just about hermetically sealing their online space. They've got an ethnic fisher that Russia likes to exploit, with the ethnic Russian population in Estonia. That was what led to the Bronze Soldier Crisis in 2007, in which a monument was moved and Russia through its media and some covert operations instigated protests in the center of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

Nina Jankowicz:I think as early on, Estonia realized that it wasn't going to just be these cyber operations or cybersecurity that protected it. They needed to address the elephant in the room. And in that case, it was integration of the Russian speaking ethnic Russian population in their country. And so along with all of their cyber measures, which are, again, some of the best in the world, they also invested in integration through education, through Russian classes for Estonian language for Russian speakers through other kind of cultural and investment opportunities for Russian speaking areas.

Nina Jankowicz:If you look at the integration statistics, things are really changing in Estonia. A lot of the younger ethnic Russians and Russian speakers are adopting an Estonia identity that isn't grounded just in culture or Estonia language. It's grounded in this kind of new Europeanness and being a digital leader in the EU, this sort of thing.

Nina Jankowicz:It seems to be really, really taking off. Is it perfect? No, very, very famously Estonia has had a couple of far-right politicians be elected to their parliament recently. So, watch that space, but certainly they seem to be doing a little bit better than many other countries. Now, they are a country of 1.3 million and people and have fewer societal fishers for countries like Russia to exploit. But if plucky little Estonia can do it, I am not sure why larger countries can't take another holistic approach with the resources that we have, let's say here in the United States to counter such operations that we're getting hit with pretty constantly at this point.

Annie Henderson:As you go through and talk about how each of these different countries handle their disinformation problems, do you think that that's the right approach? Should it be country by country or should there be any kind of international coordination? If you do think that there should be some international coordination, what should it look like?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, I think there is a unique problem for each country to solve. The campaign that Estonia was met with and continues to fight is going to very intrinsically look different than what's going on in the United States or the UK or Germany.

Nina Jankowicz:Russia is extremely good at identifying the unique weaknesses and vulnerabilities that each country has. That being said, we can always stand for more international coordination. There have been some nascent attempts at creating body that will share information and attempt to coordinate responses to disinformation crises that cross borders in particular.

Nina Jankowicz:One that was really quite successful, I would say is the response to Skripal poisoning in the UK in 2018. I think it was 2018 in which Russia, very famously used Novichok to poison a former spy who was living in the UK, Sergei, Skripal. As a result, when that operation was uncovered, the international community came together not only to expel Russian diplomats as a punishment for this egregious violation of UK sovereignty, but the UK government also shared and declassified very quickly, the intelligence that allowed them to say without a shadow of a doubt that this was the work of Russian intelligence operatives.

Nina Jankowicz:That was shared not only across governments, but with media, with experts who gave credibility to that message. I think in my perspective, that was a really successful international coordination operation. Not every disinformation incident can rise to that level, of course. But I do think there are moments where international coordination, particularly in terms of punitive measures can be extremely successful, but we haven't seen a lot of success in that area and unfortunately have seen more duplication than I would prefer.

Annie Henderson:One of the things that I love about your book is that you don't just talk about what's happening online. You also talk about how disinformation can kind of reach out the internet and have real monetary impact either through lobbying or the direct funding of groups or even just as a business for PR consulting firms who specifically focus on disinformation. What can be done about that? those actions that are happening outside of just online platforms.

Nina Jankowicz:So, this is another misconception maybe that I should have mentioned before. We think of disinformation as something that's just about online memes, but really there is a lot of offline action from the funding of these groups, as you've just mentioned to different political manifestations and unfortunately, this is where we get into kind of the murky area of anti-corruption reform.

Nina Jankowicz:This is something that I think we are going to see the Biden administration focusing on a lot more. It has been a priority for them. It's something that we really need our allies to help with as well, to uncover these networks and make sure that dirty money isn't moving around and funding these operations.

Nina Jankowicz:But if you look at Sheldon Whitehouse, the Senator from Rhode Island, if I've got that right, I'm pretty sure I do. He's very focused on anti-corruption. I did a hearing with the Senate judiciary committee in 2018, and that was his main thrust, that if we shut down the networks, the financial networks, through which these campaigns are funded, they won't be able to go on anymore. That's very true in the Russian case. With PR firms, it's a little bit different in that their clients are trying to distance themselves and they're often political actors trying to distance themselves from the disinformation and having somebody else do the dirty work.

Nina Jankowicz:We've also seen Russia do this recently, either the internet research agency or other oligarchs are buying services from PR firms, let's say in Ghana, which Clarissa Ward very famously uncovered in a recent investigation for CNN.

Nina Jankowicz:Again, that's not necessarily illegal. It just makes it a little bit more difficult to uncover these operations when the time comes. Now, the social media platforms actually for their part have cracked down on those operations, those PR disinformation or as some people like to say, disinformation for profit operations because they're quite misleading in their providence. And so, they feel that it goes against their terms of service. So that's one way that we're cracking down when there isn't illicit financial flows involved.

Reema Saleh:Disinformation doesn't just come from foreign actors. You write a lot about out how there's a rise in domestic disinformation actors and how they can be sort of amplified without knowing it. Should efforts to combat disinformation change depending on who is perpetuating that disinformation?

Nina Jankowicz:Absolutely. I think for too long in the United States, we have viewed disinformation as just a foreign problem while we are ignoring the problem underneath our noses. We have seen major political parties in the United States and high-level elected officials engaging in disinformation. Unfortunately, we don't have domestic regulations dealing with disinformation. We can point to different federal election codes and say, "Okay. Russia can't buy ads on Facebook in support of one candidate or another."

Nina Jankowicz:That's easy enough to say. But when it comes to disinformation that's coming from domestic figures online, it becomes very, very difficult to really clamp down on. We have rules governing advertising in print, on radio, on TV for elections, but when it comes to online ads, we don’t, and Facebook and other online advertisers and advertising marketplaces have been reticent to be the "arbiter" of truth for political ads.

Nina Jankowicz:Instead, saying this is free speech, it's in the public interest for people to see these lies. We've seen where that leads. It leads to insurrections that attempt to overthrow election results. I think we really need to get our federal regulations into place for this sort of stuff, especially because we have seen a proliferation of disinformation over the past 18 months that has not only affected our democracy, it's affected public health and public safety. We have to recognize that the longer we allow this wound to fester, not only do we create a bigger problem for ourselves at home, but that means that we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to foreign interference as well.

Nina Jankowicz:Because as you mentioned, we see foreign actors who identify these vulnerable individuals or people who are trafficking in disinformation, and they use them to launder their own disinformation into the American ecosystem. A great example of this from 2020 was Rudy Giuliani. As the director of national intelligence stated in their report on the 2020 election, which came out in March, I believe of 2021, it's pretty likely the IC assesses that Russian intelligence operatives fed Rudy Giuliani his "intel" on the Biden family. It was either fabricated or stolen. That was all with the express intent of manipulating American voters and using Giuliani to launder that information as a trusted conduit into the American ecosystem.

Nina Jankowicz:We have to think about this stuff. We need better awareness built about it. We need more rules about how campaigning can work with contributions from foreign governments and how that can be amplified online. Without even the foreign question in play, we need to discuss whether disinformation and just bold face lies that can affect public safety and public health can be amplified on the internet. I think there is a way to do that without endangering freedom of expression, if we keep it in an electoral atmosphere.

Reema Saleh:What are the steps that we in the US need to be taking in the long term? What institutions need to be most involved or held accountable?

Nina Jankowicz:So, I think the biggest thing on my agenda, if I were in the Biden administration right now would be empowering an office or a team of individuals to make sure that they are the kind of linchpin of US government policy to counter disinformation in the US government. Right now, we don't have that.

Nina Jankowicz:A lot of the institutions that are focused on counter disinformation activities are either within the intelligence community, within DOD, within the state department. They're not necessarily talking to each other all of the time. The coordination thing is always not necessarily the US government's strong suit, but more importantly, we don't really see involvement from institutions that are on the domestic side of things. I would love to see the department of education, the department of health and human services, housing and urban development, the national endowment for humanities, all of those and more involved in the counter disinformation question in the US government, because as we've just talked about, the domestic disinformation side of things is where it's all happening right now.

Nina Jankowicz:And if we're just playing defense outside of our borders, we're going to be missing a huge part of the game. I think that's the first step. And then we need to look at these really holistic. I hate to say it whole of government, because that's such a buzzword now, but whole of government policies where we are seeing really substantial coordination across government, where we're seeing an investment in generational activities like information literacy, where we're really trying to build up trust back in these institutions that has withered away over so long.

Nina Jankowicz:I think all of that is really important. Right now, we're kind of like a bunch of different hamsters spinning in our wheel, our own individual wheels. Are we powering a light bulb together? Yeah. But could that light be a lot stronger if we were working more in concert if we were all running on one giant wheel? Yes, I think so. And so that's the thing that I think is most important that we've seen governments like the UK do like Estonia, to some extent like Ukraine, although they have some kind of Soviet vestiges to recover from in their own government outlook and infrastructure, but that's the biggest thing on the agenda. So far, we've not seen that come out of the Biden administration.

Annie Henderson:Before this podcast, Reema and I were really excited to ask you about libraries and other offline in institutions of knowledge and what they can do to help combat disinformation, whether it be online or through these other avenues, like you've spoken about.

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, I'm really excited you brought that up. I really believe in libraries. I think they are just a great resource for the United States and other countries where they've been employed in the counter disinformation fight because they're so highly trusted. Librarians are among the most trusted individuals, even still today across political parties. What I would love to see is either through state-level funding or federal-level funding, see grants go out to libraries who can host information, literacy classes, especially directed at seniors. Right? People who might need to have a little help for how to FaceTime their grandchildren, but you can also throw in some media and information literacy into that training that you're doing with them.

Nina Jankowicz:Also, when you have circle time with a bunch of kindergartners in the kids section of the library, let's also educate them about advertising and how it's targeting them. All of that sort of stuff is things that are allies like Sweden, like Finland, like Ukraine and Estonia are doing and it is delivered by a trusted mechanism. Again, somebody that knows their community, somebody that is seen as impartial, someone whose job people view it as to navigate information environments.

Nina Jankowicz:I think that's so critical because if we do like a bumbling kind of top-down US government propaganda campaign about information literacy, everybody's just going to laugh at it. Historically, we're not very good at those sorts of things. I would rather hand it over to the experts. Librarians, civil society, organizations that have deep roots in their community and let them be the conduits of that information, give them the funding and the space that they need to do it.

Nina Jankowicz:Make it a priority and I think we'll see great results. In Ukraine, they had a similar program that was funded in part by the US government, the UK government in Canada and they saw such growth in people's understanding of the information environment. They were able to train 10,000 librarians who then went and trained, I think another 80,000-90,000 people in their own regions back home. This program is still going on today, I think both at libraries and in secondary schools in Ukraine.

Nina Jankowicz:If Ukraine can do it, smaller country than us, but still quite a large country, one of the largest in Europe, I think the United States should be able to implement a similar program to great success as well.

Reema Saleh:Misinformation often runs on kind of anger or existing tensions in our society and social media does as well. Like I'm more likely to see a post if it elicits a really strong reaction from me. What should we do when we receive this kind of information and how do we parse through it when a lot of it seems organic or homegrown?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah. That's an excellent question. I'll preface my answer by saying it's fine to be emotional. Let's just make sure our emotions are grounded in something real, not something that's spun up by a political operative or by foreign adversary. Right? When I am counseling people on kind of how to navigate the online environment, I try to remind people that the most engaging content online as you pointed out, is often the most enraging content.

Nina Jankowicz:And as we've seen from the Facebook papers, which have been and trickling out over the last couple of weeks, that is certainly true on Facebook. And I don't think they're the only social media platform that traffics in outrage. That being said, when you see this content, when you feel yourself really getting emotional about something you see online, stop for a second. Practice what I call informational distancing, which was something that I started advising people to practice at the beginning of the pandemic and consider why you're feeling so upset.

Nina Jankowicz:Is this something that is based in fact? Do you know the source? If you don't know the source, do a little bit of research. If this is a publication or a Facebook page or group, see what's behind it. See who's behind it. Do they have contact information? Is this a real person or a journalist who's published this post? If you can, do a reverse image search on their profile picture or Twitter picture to see if it brings you to an organic picture, or if it's something that's been edited or misappropriated.

Nina Jankowicz:A lot of times I can identify fake accounts because I do a reverse image search and it'll bring me to like stock haircut photos. That's a great way to do it. And then also, when we're talking about breaking news and things like that, see if anybody else is reporting what is causing you this emotional configuration in a different way.

Nina Jankowicz:Is a mainstream outlet reporting the facts the same way? Is there an outlet on the other side of the political spectrum, that's reporting the same details? Just do a little bit of crosschecking or what Michael Cofield, who's at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public calls lateral reading. Looking across the internet to see like, is this true? Is it being reported the same way elsewhere? Just getting yourself a little bit more context because there are so many manipulative people and outlets online.

Nina Jankowicz:When you do that, you're going to be more informed anyway. It's a bit like writing a book report, when we were taught to do this back in elementary school, you weren't allowed to just use one source. You need to kind of consider all sides of the equation before you come to a conclusion. If you find that there has been, let's say, an incident of police brutality and everybody is reporting this the same way, you've been able to confirm the facts across multiple outlets, you know they're coming from a verified reporter on the ground, if you're interested, you can even go a little bit deeper and do some open source investigation and try to confirm where a live video was shot, things like this.

Nina Jankowicz:That's a little bit more skilled than we have time to go into today, but people do that. That's how you get information that is grounded. In fact, you remove the emotion from your initial reaction, and you are just thinking about what is true to inform your opinion. And then you can go forth and use that to fuel your activism, use that to fuel your interjection into the online discourse. But it's so important that we take those few extra steps and I've probably spent more time talking about it than it would take you. It's just a couple of quick Google searches and a couple of deep breaths before we click share. And that matters so much. We're kind of the front lines of the information warrant.

Annie Henderson:We've spoken a lot about your first book and I'm personally very excited to hear about your second book as well, which is called How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back. Specifically, I'm curious if you see a connection between the harassment women face online and some of these broader disinformation campaigns that we covered and that you've covered at length in your first book.

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, absolutely. Actually, that's how I got into the whole gendered harassment space. I am a woman online, so I get this stuff myself, but it really started becoming an issue I cared even more about when I heard from interviewees during my first book, women in Georgia and Ukraine who had been the victims of targeted gendered disinformation campaigns coming from the Kremlin.

Nina Jankowicz:That's when I really started thinking about okay, we've heard a lot about how, how disinformation affects marginalized communities or different ethnic groups, but we really haven't heard about how it affects women. It was clear to me looking at like the Russian ads in 2016, that actually Russia was quite misogynist in its treatment of Hillary Clinton. The way that Russia had treated during the Obama administration let's say Jen Psaki who's now, of course, the white house press secretary, extremely misogynist. Russia doesn't have a great track record with feminism in general in its own domestic policy.

Nina Jankowicz:So, I started thinking about this more and I was lucky enough to do some research at the Wilson Center earlier this year with a great group of researchers that looked into not only the quantitative background of how women are treated online. We followed 13 candidates for office in the US, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada over a period of two months at the end of 2020 and found a staggering amount of gendered abuse and disinformation against them. I think something like 330, 6,000 pieces of content.

Nina Jankowicz:78% of which was directed at vice president, well at that point, candidate Kamala Harris. So really just truly, truly staggering amounts of hate. But we also saw through some structured interviews that we did with journalists and other women in the public eye, a very specific and deliberate use of gendered and sexualized tropes against women who were covering Russia, Iran, and China.

Nina Jankowicz:For me, this isn't just an issue of I'm a woman and people think it is part of my job just to endure this hatred online, which is bad enough, but it's also that the longer that we let this fester, it becomes a national security problem, right? We're in the age of deep fakes and most of the deep fakes that exist today, over 90% or 95% even are deep fake pornography. It's only a matter of time before convincing deep fake porn video is released of someone like AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) or Kamala Harris or someone else.

Nina Jankowicz:We really, really need to get a handle on this, and the platforms don't do anything about it. There's no protections for women in our legal code. Law enforcement don't know what to do when they're presented with claims of cyber stalking or cyber harassment. It has an effect on you.

Nina Jankowicz:As somebody who's gone through this stuff myself, it makes it almost impossible to do your work and in the book and you know, I've used this analogy in real life too, because people don't understand how much it affects you, I compare it to, let's say you were walking down the street and suddenly there was a swarm of people, mostly men picking apart every part of your appearance, reducing your degree and all your hard work to your gender, telling you to get back in the kitchen, telling you to make babies and stuff that I can't say on this podcast, that would be something that we wouldn't tolerate. We'd take out a restraining order. The police would help you.

Nina Jankowicz:Online, we don't have that protection. Instead, as the internet has really even more so during the pandemic become an extension of ourselves, particularly for people who have a large online presence, journalists, academics, et cetera. It's just debilitating to undergo this stuff.

Nina Jankowicz:Women are just expected to endure it. "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." That's something my trolls have said to me before. So, I'm trying to change that. I do think that this is very, very closely aligned to the disinformation campaigns that we see both coming from foreign actors and domestic actors.

Nina Jankowicz:Just this week as we're taping this podcast, we saw representative Paul Gosar sharing cheap fake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were face plastered down an anime character's body, which then he proceeds to kill. I would say that is gendered abuse and disinformation. This is something unfortunately that I think is only going to become more and more common as we have more and more women in public life. I do not want it to affect the participation of my future children in public life.

Nina Jankowicz:I don't want them to look at my Twitter replies or look at Kamala Harris' Twitter replies and see shocking things and say, "You know what? I'm not going to run for public office. I'm not going to put myself out there." We need women in the conversation. And that goes doubly so for women of color and women of marginalized backgrounds who receive even more abuse than their white peers do.

Reema Saleh:I was genuinely surprised when that Twitter video wasn't taken down. How should platforms be responding to gender disinformation and harassment? What should policymakers be doing?

Nina Jankowicz:There's so much. The platforms have gotten ever so slightly better or a little more attentive over the past couple of months since our first report came out and I will say they have been at least willing to listen to the critiques we have for them. But right now, the biggest problem is that the onus of detecting and reporting and dealing with the harassment is on the target of those being harassed. It's on women. It should be the platform's job to protect their users from harassment and abuse.

Nina Jankowicz:Twitter has just introduced safety mode, which I think is an improvement. It's essentially something that will auto block people from your replies, who are using nasty language for as long as you like if you're undergoing like a trolling campaign. But again, the onus is on the user.

Nina Jankowicz:What I would like to see is more proactive detection of this content. If we were able to find 336,000 pieces of gender abuse and disinformation over a two-month period, attacking 13 different women, imagine what the platforms can find if they just put together a list of classifiers that they are updating fairly frequently.

Nina Jankowicz:In addition to that, we need to see consequences for those who are using this type of abuse. Right now, they just get a slap on the risk. They might get their account suspended. They might be asked to delete the offending tweet. Very rarely are they kicked off the platform, particularly if they are a large follower account that is essentially sending dog whistles to their followers to go and harass someone which has happened to me and happens to a lot of people. Those instigating accounts never have any consequence. So, there's a lot for platforms to be doing more proactively to protect women.

Nina Jankowicz:There's a reason that on Reddit, on Twitter, women make up less than half of the online population. It's because we are dealing with so much more abuse. On the platform side, I would just say they really just need to enforce their terms of service. All of the thing that I've mentioned are things that go against terms of service, and we don't see them taken care of. That's number one.

Nina Jankowicz:And then policy makers, I think there is some attention to this problem, particularly among women politicians, Jackie Speier of California is very, very interested in these issues. And we've spoken with a number of other members of congress as well. The problem is anything that has to do with gender becomes a polarizing issue in this Congress in particular. The violence against women act still hasn't been renewed.

Nina Jankowicz:I think there are some provisions being discussed in BAWA to add support for women who have undergone online harassment and perhaps to equip law enforcement with training and tools that they need to deal with some of these claims. But unfortunately, I think anything that Congress is able to pass, that's going to help normal people, isn't going to be implemented for a couple of years.

Nina Jankowicz:So, in the meantime, we really need the platforms to step up again. The one other thing that I would love to see introduced in the House and Senate individually and then in other parliamentary bodies around the world is rules for people who are sharing gendered abuse. So, for the representative Gosars or others, if they're sharing this sort of abuse or violent abuse from their official accounts, they need to be censored. There needs to be a consequence for those who are engaging in this sort of behavior to their colleagues.

Nina Jankowicz:This is supposed to be a civil deliberative institution and it's not supposed to be somewhere where people have to deal with violent threats from people they go to work with. Make no mistake, the idea there, again, isn't just to silence Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the interim, it's to send a message to all women, especially women of color or progressive women that they're not welcome in those spaces.

Nina Jankowicz:That is just unacceptable. So, I hope to see something like that introduced at least in the house sometimes soon as a result of what we've seen this week, but we've seen other issues that have met no resistance from the house rules committee or others. Just a few ideas. There's more in our report, malign creativity, which you can find on the Wilson Center website.

Annie Henderson:I think you've already answered this for online harassment that women face. But what are some of your big takeaways for policymakers when you're talking to them about disinformation more generally? You obviously speak to policymakers about this topic. What are your big points that you really need them to understand and take back with them?

Nina Jankowicz:The one that I repeat over and over, and I still think, unfortunately, is not heard by some politicians is that disinformation is not a partisan problem. It's a democratic problem. It doesn't matter what political party is being helped in the interim by disinformation. It might help your party today, but it might come to attack you tomorrow. It really is going to affect all of us. It's going to affect faith in the democratic system as we've already seen. It takes years to recover from something like that. I have served on election observation missions in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, where there is this deep-seated distrust of the electoral system because of legitimate fraud that existed there for many years. And so, I often think about in the wake of January 6th in the #StopTheSteal movement, how many people go to the ballot box now and don't trust that their vote is being counted?

Nina Jankowicz:I really do worry about that. It's not just our democracy that suffers, but as I've been saying the whole time, our public safety and public health, these institutions are important to the functioning of our society, to the peace and prosperity of the United States. It's ultimately extremely a selfish to say, "It's okay." When disinformation happens, as long as it's not affecting me.

Nina Jankowicz:If any policy makers are listening out there, remember the ultimate victim of disinformation is our democracy and people's participation in it. And without that participation, you're not going to get elected and the system isn't going to function anymore.

Nina Jankowicz:And that's the biggest takeaway for me and something that I find myself again, repeating every time testifying on the Hill or briefing policymaker, otherwise.

Reema Saleh:Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Nina Jankowicz. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh.

Annie Henderson:Special thanks to UC3P and The Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.


Root of Conflict


Quantifying Global Peace | Steve Killelea

How we can build more peaceful, resilient societies? In this episode, we speak with Steve Killelea, a global philanthropist focused on peace and sustainable development and author of Peace in the Age of Chaos. He is the founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace and the Global Peace Index, which measures and ranks the peacefulness of 163 different countries around the world.

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema, and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world.

Reema Saleh: Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Reema Saleh: In this episode, Deqa and I speak with Steve Killelea, a global philanthropist focused on peace and sustainable development. He's the founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace and the Global Peace Index, which measures and ranks the peacefulness of 163 different countries around the world. We talk about his recent book, Peace in the Age of Chaos, and how we can build more peaceful, resilient societies.

Steve Killelea: Peace in the Age of Chaos, it covers a number of different themes. The first is the personal journey to peace. Does it really happen by accident? Secondarily, it covers an entrepreneurial story on how you go about developing a world class think tank. And then finally it talks about the state of global peace, and then also describes a concept called positive peace, which is the attitudes, institutions, and structures which create and sustain peaceful societies, combines that with systems thinking to then come up with a transformational concept for how we could go about better running our societies.

Steve Killelea: But really, if I look back on it, peace to me happened by accident. So, my background's in business, I've set up two international IT companies. First one ended up publicly listed on NASDAQ, second on the Australian stock exchange. From that I accumulated quite a bit of money.

Steve Killelea: And so I set up a family foundation to work with the poorest of the poor. And so it's done a bit over 220 different projects down different parts of the world and direct beneficiaries about 3.6 million people. And so, working with the poorest, the poor took me into a lot of war zones, near post-war zones. And it would've been northeast Kivu in the Congo, I was walking through there one day and I suddenly wondered what is the opposite of all these stressed out countries I'm spending time in? What are the most peaceful countries and what could I learn from them to bring to my projects?

Steve Killelea: And really it was a fantasy question. We all have these fantasy questions. But what was profound, so I got back to Sydney, searched the internet, and couldn't find any rankings, the countries of the world by their peacefulness. I thought, wow, that's important. So, that's how the Global Peace Index was born. But out of that comes a really very, very profound question and profound realization: Is that a simple business guy like myself can be walking through Africa and wonder, what are the most peaceful nations, and it hasn't been done, and how much do we know about peace? If you can't measure something, can you truly understand it? If you can't measure it, how do you know whether your actions are actually helping you or hindering you?

Deqa Aden: You touched a little bit about positive peace. My question for you is what is negative peace and why is it important for us to distinguish positive peace from negative peace?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, that's a very good question. But I think the question coming back from that is what is peace? And so peace means different things to different people. So, you can hear a politician speak and peace is when the war stops, but that doesn't mean that you've actually got a peaceful society. You've just got one where you haven't got two armies fighting. There's also the concept of inner peace. And so inner peace may be described as the absence of conflictive emotions, certainly the concepts in the East of inner peace, of what they would call happiness, which is very different than the Western concept of happiness.

Steve Killelea: So for me, peace and the definition used for peace is relative to what you're trying to achieve. So, you think, well, what aspect of peace am I trying to understand here? And then you look at a definition to match.

Steve Killelea: So now, if we look at the Global Peace Index, we use the definition called the absence of violence or fear of violence as the definition of peace. And that's what you could call negative peace. Now it's very, very good. It's a definition just about everyone can agree on. You don't get too much argument. And it's something which leads to being able to get metrics to be able to measure peace. So, if you look at the Global Peace Index, it's got three different domains. So, it's got internal safety and security, maybe things like homicide rates, violent crime, terrorist acts, number of police, number of people in jail, etc., ongoing conflict and militarization. So, you can measure them. Now that's very, very good because now you know the state of peace. You know the state of peace with all the countries you're measuring – in our case, it's 163.

Steve Killelea: And then you also understand the velocity of peace in those countries. Is it improving or is it getting worse? And along a whole range of dimensions. So, that's truly, truly insightful. But what it doesn't do is tell you what it takes to create a peaceful society. Now that is what positive peace is. So, that's positive peace. And so we describe that as the attitude, institutions, and structures which create and sustain peaceful societies.

Steve Killelea: Now what sets that apart from the work of other people working in these fields is we've derived this through mathematical modeling and statistics. So, we've got something like 50,000 different data sets, indexes, attitudinal surveys at the country level in Sydney. So, what we do is mathematical modeling, statistical analysis against those data sets to find out the factors which are most closely associated with the Global Peace Index. And so those factors then, we take them, we do further analysis to be able to clump the ones which are most statistically significant together, that then forms a framework, or it's eight pillars, of positive peace.

Steve Killelea: Now the beauty of that is, one, it's not my ideas on what creates peace or the researchers’ ideas on what creates peace. It's factually driven within a positive peace index and not set by us. They're dependent on the way, on the strength of the correlations with the Global Peace Index. Now, as we pull that all together, we can now create a positive peace index and that's really quite profound because that now gives us the ability to be able to look at how a country's momentum's changing on the factors underlying what creates peace.

Steve Killelea: But what's more profound is what we found is when we took this Positive Peace Index, the same factors, which create peace, also create a whole range of other things which we think are really important in society. Such as high per capita income. In fact, countries which are improving in positive peace on average have 2% per annum higher GDP growth rate than countries which are decreasing. Perform better on measures of ecological sustainability, perform better on measures of your wellbeing and happiness and on measures of inclusion.

Steve Killelea: So, from that, what we derived is that positive peace, in many ways, describes an optimal environment in which human potential can flourish. And that's quite important. We then take the positive peace and then combine it with a whole set of systems, thinking, and theory to better understand the way societies operate. And that is when we start to get looking at the transformational way, Western governments and societies, about how we go about doing societal development.

Reema Saleh: Can you talk a little bit more about the Global Peace Index and the methodology in scoring countries?

Steve Killelea: Sure. So, if we look at the Global Peace index, as mentioned earlier on consists of three different domains, first one's safety and security, the second is ongoing conflict, and the third is militarization. So, we bring these together to create these three dimensions to create a compass and index. Consists of 23 different measures. We have an expert panel that looks at the indicators and assesses them and makes recommendations on what indicators we should and shouldn't include. And the index itself has been slowly evolving over time. Having the three different domains, you can take all of it as composite index and see what's happening and where the changes are or alternatively, you take each of the domains separately and see the momentum and direction of them. So, one of the more fascinating things which comes out of it is if we look back over the last decade, more countries have actually improved in peace than deteriorated. Most people wouldn't believe that, would they?

Steve Killelea: In fact, we've had 86 countries improve and 75 deteriorate. However, peace globally actually deteriorated over that time. And that speaks simply because when countries fall in peace, they fall faster than they improve. Takes a lot longer to improve in peace. You need the outbreak of the conflict or something, and it really drops significantly. So, if we come back and we look at, let's say domains like safety and security, it consists of a number of different measures, which are able to balance each other out. So, some of the things would be, let's say, the number of police, the levels of incarceration, levels of violent crime and homicide. And all those come together. So, if you have a police state, let's say a spy in every 10,000, it'd be really quite peaceful in terms of violent crime. But on the other hand, it's not a very peaceful place to live. So we look at the level of policing, the level of incarceration, and the level of violent crime. We also got the availability of small arms within the society. That's also a negative. We also measure the number of violent demonstrations, let's say, and a number of other measures. State-sponsored terror on its citizens, that'd be another measure which we have in there as well. So that's the safety and security. So that's really focusing on the internal.

Steve Killelea: Now militarization, that consists of a number of different indicators. So it's like percentage of GDP spent on the military, number of troops per 100,000 people in the population, sophistication of the weapons – countries with nuclear weapons score the worst possible score on that. And then the size of the imports and exports of military equipment as well.

Steve Killelea: And now, so if you look at the definition which we use for the Global Peace Index, absence of violence or fear of violence. So some people would say, well, the military keeps the peace. In some ways, that's a very, very true statement, but why do you have a military? It's, one, because you fear your neighbors and that you need to protect yourself against them. So that's fear of violence. Alternatively, you really do have to keep yourself safe or that you want the military to exert geopolitical influence. And that comes back to the use of the military for a country's own advantage. So that's the reason the military's in there. And so we're neutral on the military in terms of what the size of the military should be. Obviously, we don't live in a peaceful world. We need military, but the size of the military really comes down to choice for each individual country. What's the level you need to feel safe without it being then used extensively overseas in conflicts, which didn't need to happen?

Steve Killelea: The final domain is ongoing conflict. And so ongoing conflict measures the number of people killed in conflicts. It measures the intensity of the conflicts, and also the number of the conflicts as well which is going on. One of the more interesting things which is coming out of the work we've done, over the last 15 years what we've seen has been a growing global inequality in the levels of peace. So the countries which are most peaceful are becoming more peaceful, while the countries which are less peaceful are becoming less peaceful. What we find is once you actually get into a conflict trap, very, very hard to get out of it. And similarly, once you get very, very high levels of peace, we haven't had any countries with very high levels of peace, but major falling peace while we've been doing the index.

Deqa Aden: What are some best strategies to collect data from fragile countries? And how can we ensure accuracy when there's still some sort of violence that's happening? And what has been your strategy to ensure that we collect data from everywhere?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, well, we cover 163 countries, so about 99.7% of the population in the world. Some countries, the smaller ones, you just can't get valid data. So there's two ways of doing it. One is you use whatever official statistics you've got. The second is through using expert assessment. So if you're looking at the indicators within the Global Peace Index, they're a combination of the two. And so also you go for the best data resources that you can get your hands on.

Steve Killelea: So if you can go down into some countries, let's say DRC, for example, getting an accurate rate on a homicide rate is very hard, but you'll have estimates there. And the reality is that you are out by 10%, 15%, because you've got the 23 indicators from different directions, it doesn't matter too much. So whether something's 120 on the Global Peace Index or 130, it's not really so important - you're still getting an idea of the relative peace. But the best way of doing it, you balance it out with the best statistics you can get then combined with some things which are expert assessment. So like political instability, that'd be the example of one indicator which we use which is expert assessment.

Reema Saleh: What are the difficulties that come with quantifying this kind of data?

Steve Killelea: One is the availability of data. So it's a lot of things we'd like to measure, but there aren't yet decent data sets to measure them. Domestic violence would probably be one good example. The other thing is there's political dimension in this. And I think that's one of the reasons why we were the first organization to really do it. So because we've done a lot of work, let's say, with the European Union, for example, and they'll measure all the countries around the world by a level of peacefulness, but they won't measure anything inside the EU. Just too politically difficult.

Steve Killelea: So at times, you've got to be very, very sensitive to the political issues around this. So the mechanism we've taken with inside the Institute is we talk to the data. We don't talk to the politics. And then we let people draw their conclusions from the data. And so we've got a quite rigorous standard for just the way we talk about things so that we don't talk about them from a moral, emotional, or political lens wherever we can. But at times you'll find things like, let's say, democracies are highly correlated with peace. And so democracies are correlated with a number of other things as well. So we try and let the data do the talking.

Deqa Aden: We were wondering if you can share with us some trends about the Global Peace Index for 2021.

Steve Killelea: So if we're looking over the last decade, there's a number of trends you can see there. The first, as I mentioned, more countries have improved in peace than have deteriorated. However, when we look at overall peace, it deteriorated by 2% over the period. And it's back to what I said earlier on is that it's a lot easier for countries to deteriorate in peace than it is to improve in peace. It's also a system theory concept of tractable planes, which I've already mentioned. So a tractable plane's an area where countries get pulled into, and once you are in it, very hard to get out of. And so that's high levels of peace and low levels of peace. Then those two are tractable planes. So whereas, we find the top and the bottom of the index doesn't move around a lot. Whereas, the middle you bounce around quite a bit.

Steve Killelea: One of the other things which is interesting, I think, is militarization. So militarizations have been improving for over a decade. And then in the last three years, we've seen that trend change. And so we've now seen percentage of GDP spent on the military increasing in more countries than deteriorating and seeing the number of soldiers per 100,000 populations starting to increase after years over decreasing as well. And so I think what we're seeing is change. And this change in what appeared to be an historic trend which had been going on probably since the '80s, the end of the Cold War, and I think that's because of increased tensions in the South China Sea. It's all the militarization of China, and also an unraveling of relationships between Russia and Europe and NATO as well.

Steve Killelea: So I think these are sort of the underlying facts, not good. Violent demonstrations are on the increase. If looking at violent demonstrations, they're up 161% in the last decade. That's just steadily increasing each year. And down in the United States, if you look carefully, you can see the same trend going on there as well. So that'd be a few of the things. Homicides globally have improved, so that's an encouraging sign from one direction as well. So there are a few of the highlights which we can see out of studying the Global Peace Index.

Deqa Aden: So Iceland has been ranked the most peaceful country for the last 10 years. We are wondering why is that the case?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, well, there's always the standard joke in Iceland. Well, it's so cold, no one goes outside, do they? But I think that's a bit of a throwaway line. So I spent quite a bit of time in Iceland over the years, beautiful country. Any of your listeners ever want to have a great holiday, go to Iceland. It's one of the most spectacularly stunning places I've ever been in. But if you look at Icelandic history, it's been peaceful for a long, long while. And part of it is the environment: it's fiercely hostile. It's one of the most hostile environments in which people live. And I think what that's done is means if you're out and you've got big distances between people, if you're out and you get caught in a blizzard, you just go to the nearest house and people will welcome you in. In fact, up to about probably 30 years ago, no one locked their houses up. And if you turned up at someone's house, you're quite okay socially to go in and pour yourself a cup of tea. Put a kettle on the stove and have a cup of tea. Can you imagine doing that in Chicago or Sydney, for that matter? You'd be arrested.

Steve Killelea: But if you go back even in history, there's only been one real war fought internally within the country and that goes back to about 1200 AD, so a long, long while ago. Similarly, what happened is the men would be on boats. They'd go away for long periods of time because they had to go to get goods, bring them back, and things like that. And so the communities themselves were very, very good at integrating together.

Steve Killelea: And so I think you've got all these things which go back. One is the environment. Two is the history because they weren't into killing each other. They were into reconciling things. There's a place in Iceland where you've got two tectonic plates meeting, because it's one of the most volcanic active places in the worlds. Literally, you've got the two plates meeting, and one plate's 20 meters higher than the other plate, just the most significant place like it anywhere in the world. But they used to meet there for a big huddle once a year for about two weeks, and everyone from Iceland would come around and that's where they'd set their laws. And then the laws would be set, but you never had police or military to enforce them because the country was too scattered. It was up to the people of the country to actually enforce the laws themselves. So you've got all these rich traditions in it as well, which also I think lead to that underlying sense of high levels of peacefulness.

Deqa Aden: Now that we've discussed the current key trends in the Global Peace Index, we would like your opinion on climate change. When I think of the Global Peace Index, the first thing that comes to mind is political violence, not necessarily climate change. We were wondering why is climate change mostly excluded from the peace talks, and will there be a shift in putting climate change at the heart of peace and security discussions?

Steve Killelea: I think it's a complex issue. We've got the absence of violence or fear of violence as the definition of peace in the Global Peace Index. So putting in climate change would mess the Index up, it wouldn't be an accurate index anymore. Climate change is a very serious threat going forward, and it's going to be an amplifier on conflict, I think everyone sort of agrees with that. However, what it's amplifying is a lot of ecological degradation, and the ecological degradation is there now, and ecological degradation is a driver of conflict.

Steve Killelea: So we just put out a report, an ecological threat report, about three weeks ago. So part of it was to align with COP26, part of it was to get people focused as there's a lot of ecological threats there which we need to address now, which are drivers of conflict. For example, if we look at the 15 countries with the worst ecological damage, 15 of them are currently in conflict and four of them are on our watch lists for further large falls in peace. Now, if we look at what we call hotspot countries - there's 30 of them - so they're countries with very high ecological damage or threat, and also countries with low societal resilience. And we use positive peace to measure societal resilience. Of the 30 countries which are hotspot countries there, 28 of them are in the bottom half of the Global Peace Index.

Steve Killelea: So again, you're driving home this nexus. There's 12 countries in the world, all of them are in Africa, which are going to more than double their population in the next 30 years. Niger is the worst, it's with a projected population increase of 161%. So these countries are already ecologically degraded and stressed, and so these increases in population are just going to increase it further. And then climate change over the top of it is then just going to act as an amplifier yet again, increasing the droughts, increasing the floods. So I think climate change is going to have a real impact on the planet in the next 30 to 100 years, we really need to be taking what measures we can to reduce it.

Steve Killelea: But climate change is just one of a whole range of stresses we've got. Biodiversity is another one, it's very hard for a lot of us to fully understand the ecology and our dependence on a healthy ecology, but it's there. A lack of water is another one, and there are other stresses as well. So if we're looking at let's say food insecurity, this is one which is intimately tied in with this ecological degradation which we study and conflict, so if you look at food insecurity, it's increased 44% since 2014. And if you went back for decades prior to that, it'd been improving every year, but since 2014 it's got worse every year. In fact, it's 44% worse than what it was in 2014.

Steve Killelea: So today 2.3 billion people are food insecure, that's about 30% of the population of planet. But if you went to Africa, what you'd find is that two thirds of the population are food insecure, and getting worse. And the whole population of Africa is meant to increase by 90%, it was projected to increase by 90% in the next 30 years. So these are urgent problems which are existing there today, and so we really need to start to look at and address it. And we've got to address it in systemic ways, so we need to be looking at the whole of the system.

Steve Killelea: And so the Sahel in Africa's a pretty good example. So if you look at the Sahel in Africa for example, you've got Islamic militants there which have got loyalty to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, so you've got refugee issues. You've got ecological degradation, lack of food, lack of a water, water is needed for the food, you've got weak governance as well. And so we need to start look at all these issues systemically, how can you pull them together and do things to improve the societal systems to tackle many of these things simultaneously? But the systems we use, and all the institutions I should say, we use are siloed.

Steve Killelea: So let's come back to the Sahel, you've got military operations there, we'll just look at this through the lens of the UN. So you've got military operations going on there, that could be UN Peacekeeping. You've got UNHCR for refugees, you've got FAO which looks at the food, you've got UNDP which looks at development. But even it comes down to siloes, like WaSH programs and standard developmental programs somewhere else. And I could keep going, but you're getting an idea. So if these are systemic problems, we need institutions which operate systemically to be able to try and tackle them and solve them.

Steve Killelea: And in the book Peace in the Age of Chaos, that's what a lot of is about, we've got to start rather than seeing these as siloed problems, a military problem, a refugee problem, a development problem, a population problem. So you've got the UN Population Fund working on family planning, another silo, it's how do we bring them together to look at a specific area and how do we now tackle that? Weak governance as well, so if you look at a lot of the states there, they’ve got very, very weak governance and very, very weak rule. So now if you're looking at building governance, well, that's back into the IMF and the World Bank, how do we bring it all together? That'd be the major thing that I'm talking about. And climate change fits as one of the issues under all of that, but a very, very big and very, very important issue.

Reema Saleh: You write a lot in your book about the importance of systems thinking and how the elements of peaceful societies come together to make resiliency. How does this approach work to measure a country's resilience to shocks or future conflict?

Steve Killelea: So what we've found is that positive peace is an excellent measure of a system. So what we've done is, the way it's been derived, it's eight different pillars. And so eight's not too many, most people can get their head around it, but it's enough to describe a such societal system. None of this is counterintuitive, things like well-functioning government, strong business environment, equitable distribution of resources, high levels of human capital, acceptance of the rights of others, good relationships with neighbors, low levels of corruption, and so they all come together systemically.

Steve Killelea: Now, what's important when you're looking at this now, and you're taking the positive peace, what we find is it's very, very good at being able to predict future falls in peace. So in that way, you'd say it is a measure of resilience. And so peace in many ways, it's a relative concept, it's only relative to another entity. So show a country as peaceful, that's dependent on the other countries you're looking at, isn't it. Or is it resilience, show a country as resilient, it's depending on what else you're looking at.

Steve Killelea: So what we find is when there's a big difference between the measures of positive peace and the measures of the Global Peace Index, it's a good predictor of large future falls in peace, so you can see that as a measure of resilience. So countries where the positive peace score is much, much lower, the actual peace of the country, they tend to fall. And now when we are using that as a model, we call that a positive peace deficit model. We can get 10 years out, we can get 70 to 90% accuracy in large falls of peace, depending on the number of countries we pick. The smaller the number of countries we pick, the more accurate the model is, which gives you an idea of the strength. So also looking at resiliency. Another example, let's look at civil resistance movements. Countries high in positive peace, they have less civil resistance movements, they last for a shorter amount of time, more moderate in their aims, more likely to achieve their aims, and are far, far, far less violent.

Steve Killelea: And so as we come back to positive peace and again systemically, we see that things which create a peaceful society such as positive peace, also create a lot of the other things which we think are important, which I mentioned earlier on, things like high per capita income, better measures of wellbeing, happiness, better measures on inclusion, better measure on ecology, better measures on development. So again, coming back and we're seeing that if you can get the societal system right, what happens is everything else follows. An example that'll come back, the ecological degradation. So no country, which has high positive peace has really poor ecological degradation. This comes back, a lot of it, to the social system. It all comes together. So if you've got a well-functioning society, you capture the amount of water which you need to sustain your culture. From that, you've got productive agriculture, you should've got good government policies to oversee agriculture, and you've got efficient markets for the distribution of the produce. Your countries like Singapore, where you can't grow enough, you've got export industries which get the income so that you can import food. And also, the country's high in positive peace in this age have all got very small population growth. So from that angle, they're quite sustainable. That's just an example. It's when you get the system right, it's self-perpetuating. It looks after itself.

Steve Killelea: And countries which are high in positive peace are quite adaptive. I mentioned seven of the eight pillars earlier on, the one I left out was free flow of information. So if you look at the way these things function, they come together. I'll just give a simple example of just how difficult is to find causality in all this. And there's certainly things which do push the system in a particular direction, but think of well functioning government, low levels of corruption, and free flow of information. Free flow of information could be epitomized by a free press, but it's more than that. So does government affect corruption or does corruption affect government? Similarly, does the free flow of information affect the way corruption's done? What is corruption? Stymieing the free flow of information. And similarly, is the government and the things it does affected by a free press or free flow of information, or does the government pass regulations to control and affect the press?

Steve Killelea: You can't pull any of it apart, can you? It's all circular. So as you start to move in the systems side of things, first thing one wants to think about is path dependency. That's the path which a culture's been on. We spoke about Iceland earlier on and we could see the path dependency of Iceland. It's a positive path dependency, which has left them with a high level of peace now. All cultures have these path dependencies. It's their history, it's their cultural norms. And so you really need to be able to understand them, because they're actually fueling the system in a particular direction. So you really need to understand them and understand what needs to change. That'd be one concept.

Steve Killelea: You've also got concept of homeostasis, or steady state. So systems try and maintain a steady state. Look what's been happening in the west with the COVID-19, the way we've been attempting to get the system and keep it in balance. This concept of a steady state, all societies are built like that. If you get outbreaks of crime, you apply more policing. Inflation breaks out, you increase interest rates, et cetera, et cetera. You find all these mechanisms, which are called encoded norms built within societies, to try and keep it in a steady state. This may be a good or may be a bad thing. If it's the steady state, which entrenches corruption, that's not so good, is it? Or it's a steady state, which entrenches the police state, that's not a good thing either. So one needs to look at this and understand it from that perspective. And so, one of the things is you've got mutual feedback loops.

Steve Killelea: What happens there, and think of two political parties as a good example. You have an input into the system, you get a response, and the response comes back and alters the input. Systems are just made up of those kind of things all the time, very different than the physical world. So think of two political parties. One makes a policy manifesto, another party now responds to that policy manifesto, and the first party now adjusts and comes back. So you got this interactive game going on, where one has an action, the other responds, the other has another action in response to it, and so you have those things going on all the time through the system. Could think of the same thing with corruption. You bring in the law to control corruption, and corruption then manifests and starts to take a new form and get active in areas where it wasn't necessarily active before, because the system is pushing it down a different direction. And this could come back to then your cultural norms, your path dependency, what is the public perception of what's acceptable corruption? Varies from society to society.

Deqa Aden: So finally, I would like to ask you, what is the biggest takeaways policy makers should take from the book Peace in the Age of Chaos?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, well, there's a number of takeaways, but I'll just hit a couple of points. I think the first we haven't really covered in this interview is peace comes with an economic dividend. Don't underestimate how strong it is, because I gave the example earlier on of the 2% higher GDP for countries which are high in positive peace compared to countries which had deteriorated. That, when you compound it over 60 years, is a profoundly big difference. But if you look at cost of violence of the global economy in 2020, it was about $15 trillion. That's about 11.6% from memory of GDP. That's a lot. None of us can imagine a world which is peaceful, but we can all imagine a world which is 10% more peaceful, and that would be equivalent of adding three new economies to the world the size of Ireland, Switzerland, and Denmark. So peace is an achievable, tangible idea and comes with strong economic dividends, which is a key interest for all politicians.

Steve Killelea: The second thing I'd say is that societies operated systems and we don't actually get it. We've got a lot of systems, we think, yeah, there's a health system, there's a policing system, an education system, but we don't understand the principles of systems thinking and the actual study of systems from a societal perspective is still in its very, very early stages. That's a lot of the stuff I talk about in the book, and a lot of the stuff we're now starting to really study at the Institute for Economics and Peace. The second thing I'd say is that we can't go about business as usual. The big issues we've got on the planet, they're global in nature, things like climate change, ever decreasing biodiversity, full use of the fresh water on the planet, but underpinning many of those is overpopulation.

Steve Killelea: Unless we have a world which is basically peaceful, we'll never get levels of trust, cooperation, and inclusiveness to solve these problems, therefore peace is a prerequisite for the survival of society as we know it in the 21st century. That's probably different than any other epoch in human history. In the 21st century, it's in everyone's self-interest, but we have to understand the system dynamics and we have to operate our political systems more systemically, because our issues today are global in nature, and they're all systemic.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Steve Killelea. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


Human Rights in Yemen | Afrah Nasser

What are the prospects for peace in Yemen and how do we hold international actors accountable? In this episode, we speak with Afrah Nasser, a researcher with Human Rights Watch investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen. A former activist and independent journalist in Sana’a, Nasser has been advocating for human rights and justice in Yemen for over a decade.

Reema Saleh: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. In this episode, I speak with Afrah Nasser, a researcher with Human Rights Watch investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen. She was an activist and independent journalist in Sana'a, and has been advocating for justice in Yemen for over a decade. So to start, can you walk us through the beginnings of the civil war in Yemen? How have things changed since the 2011 revolution?


Afrah Nasser: 2011 was a very significant point for Yemen's political life, in general. There were a lot of stereotypes about Yemen, that following the Arab Spring, there will not be an uprising or any democratic aspiration in Yemen, given that it's heavily tribal society and there is not room for democracy or a democratic life already. But in 2011, all the youth took the street and protestors were chanting, “irhal, irhal,” which means, "leave, leave." Meaning they were demanding the downfall of the president back then Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than 30 years and was preparing presidency for his son. And then 2011 was the start of all what we see today because there was an international war to topple him with some conditions. So Ali Abdullah Saleh gave up power after the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council led by Saudi Arabia, stepped in and gave him a power transfer deal, which meant that he was going to give away power and then an exchange of impunity.

Afrah Nasser: So there was guarantee that he was not going to face any transitional justice or at least 400 people from his circle. And that was in my opinion, the seed of the civil war that followed in 2014, because the transition without justice was a recipe for a disaster already. So in 2014, there was alliance between the former president Ali Abdbullah Saleh and the rebel group, the Houthis, to take revenge against some of the political actors inside Yemen that worked with the international community to topple him. And it was like a marriage of convenience because Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthis already had several episodes of war, but because they had mutual interest at that time. So, that alliance was planning to challenge the presidency of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. So in 2014, the Houthi armed group marched into the capital Sana’a and took control of the major institution and gradually took over of the state.

Afrah Nasser: And then this was marked with a lot of violence inside Yemen, especially the capital, which escalated with the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in 2015. So in March you had the Saudi Ambassador to the US back then Adel al-Jubeir, announcing from the US that Saudi Arabia was leading a coalition of nine to eleven, I'm not sure, Arab states that were going to form a military alliance and fight the Houthi armed group in Sana'a, as he described the Houthi were backed by Iran, and that was a big threat to Saudi Arabia. So since then, seeing the major conflict between the Saudi-led coalition with two key actors in that coalition are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fighting in Yemen, the Houthi armed group. And then at the same time, civilians were really facing so many abuses in violations by the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi armed group.

Afrah Nasser: And then in 2017 in the Houthis killed Ali Abdullah Saleh, which gave them eventually the upper hand in controlling the capital Sana'a. So today you have the Houthi armed group controlling major parts of the north. While in the south, you have the Southern Transitional Council, which is backed by the UAE, controlling some part of the south. And also there is a presence of the Saudi-led coalition-backed Yemeni forces in the east of Yemen and south. So today we can say that Yemen is divided by different part, by different actors, which is like a multi-layered conflict. So you have one civil conflict, and then on the other level, it's internationalized because the Saudi-led coalition is enabled by the arm deals that it's able to add from major Western states like the US, the UK, France, Canada, et cetera.

Reema Saleh: Could you talk about some of the human rights abuses that have been coming from both parties?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. So since throughout the course of the conflict, we've seen unlawful attacks by the Saudi led coalition, some of the abuses and violations include bombing schools, hospitals, funerals, weddings, and other civilian sites. The exact number of the casualties in my opinion, is underestimated. So according to the UN the latest statistics from the UN is that nearly a quarter of a million people have been killed. And that's not only by the unlawful attacks, but also including the humanitarian impact of the conflict. And then there is also lack of reliable statistics about the casualties of people killed by hostilities and unlawful attacks by the Houthi armed group. So, that makes it really unfair to describe the impact of the unlawful attacks. But from what we've seen is that the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi armed group forces are committing unlawful attacks or use of violence against civilians or civilian targets.

Afrah Nasser: And then one of the major abuse that I care a lot about and work on a lot, is the detention crisis across the country. So, we've seen since the beginning of the conflict, there is a widespread of arbitrary detention and forcible disappearance of countless number of civilians. And Saudi-led coalition-backed Yemeni forces and the Houthi armed group are all responsible of committing those detention cases. So without exaggeration, from my experience working on this, I feel like every household have been impacted by the detention crisis. I'm bombarded with messages of relatives of missing men who are asking Human Rights Watch to document their cases. It's just the level of detention is just shocking. And the longer the war goes on, the more new groups are impacted by the detention situation. So this year there are reports from the UN coming saying that there are children also that were detained by some of the parties of the conflict. Human Rights Watch, we've worked on the case of the Yemeni model, Intisar al-Hammadi.

Afrah Nasser: So we've seen also women are being also subjected to detention. So, Intisar al-Hammadi is still imprisoned and facing unfair trial in Sana'a by the court that's controlled by the Houthi authorities. And there are other women also that are detained in her case as well and their families are not able to speak up because of the really deadly consequences of them speaking. So detention is just one area that I feel like is impacting every household. The situation for children also is just one of the most horrific aspect of the conflict. Because maybe not many people know, but most of the Yemeni population are below the age of 15. So it's a really young population and you see the impact of the conflict directly on children. So, today we have more than half the 20 million people who are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection in Yemen, are children.

Afrah Nasser: And most of these children will have those consequences of the humanitarian crisis for all their lives, because it impacts their growth, it impacts their intellectual ability. And just every time there is images of skinny children who are becoming the face of the starvation or famine in Yemen, it just breaks my heart because this is going to have long term devastation to the country. And then also children are impacted by the hostilities and violence in particular. We've seen children being targets of shelling by the Houthi armed group while playing, for example. Those cases are really just like a shocking mirror of the violations of their basic rights. And parties to the conflict also continue to use the schools for the military efforts and purposes. So it's just children don't... there is no safe place for children. Neither when they are playing in the street or...even their schools are being targeted.

Afrah Nasser: And it just breaks my heart. The situation from children is one of the worst, I would say, in the conflict in Yemen. And land mines also are a silent killer that not many people really pay attention to. So what we have seen according to some estimates that the death of land mines is at least 9,000 people who were killed. And in particular, the Houthi armed group have used anti-personnel landmines in conducting indiscriminate attacks. So I can go on, the list is really long, but I think one of the things that really concerned maybe the audience is the humanitarian situation and the starvation and the warning from the UN about famine and the humanitarian crisis. And there are many factors that are playing in this regard. But what we know is that parties to the conflict have had tactics or abusive practice that really exaggerated an already dire humanitarian crisis.

Afrah Nasser: So even us in Human Rights Watch, we have documented severe restrictions by the Houthi authorities, the Yemeni government, and even affiliated forces, and the UAE-backed STC forses. They all have had restriction on the delivery of the desperately needed humanitarian aid. So the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it's not a natural disaster, or it didn't happen out of nowhere. It's man made and we know that parties to the conflict are responsible of that. Another underreported, I think, aspect of the conflict is the abuses that migrants face. So this year we saw that a migrant detention center was on fire in the north part of Yemen in Sana'a and it was under the control of the Houthi authorities. And from our investigation, we called the Houthi authorities to hold those responsible of the fire to account. And until today, for all those abuses, there were no justice.

Afrah Nasser: And that tells you about the urgent need of justice and redress for the victims in the course of Yemen conflict. So just last month, the UN specialized group investigating violations in Yemen for the fourth year, published a report saying that, "Until there is no political will from the international communities to address the lack of accountability, we will continue to see the situation in Yemen getting worse and worse and more abuses and more violations." Because parties to the conflict feel that they have free access and no consequences whatsoever in committing all these abuses. And unfortunately, that's being enabled by the silence of the international community and lack of political will to address the lack of accountability.

Reema Saleh: What responsibility does the international community bear for some of these atrocities, especially now that the US has resumed arm sales with the UAE?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah, there is a huge responsibility when we talk about international mechanisms, when it comes to accountability and international humanitarian law and international human rights, Yemen is a great example of the collective responsibility and collective failure, because there are many international actors that are involved in the conflict in Yemen. So the Saudi-led coalition began the military operation with UN Security Council Resolution in 2015. And it's been having the backing and support of most of the international community. And that means the US, the UK, France, others. And it just tells you how this is not just Saudi Arabia fighting in Yemen, but it also all these super powers as well. And then on the other hand, you have within the UN Security Council, we've seen Russia and Iran fully giving diplomatic support to the Houthi. And there are many news media reports about Iran supporting the Houthis militarily and helping them with training and et cetera.

Afrah Nasser: So the international actors in Yemen have huge responsibility to how the course of the conflict has been going. And when I say it's also like a collective failure, because I feel like when we talk about the international humanitarian law, there are mounting evidence, overwhelming evidence documented by respected international non-governmental, non-profit human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, and even Yemeni local rights groups, and even the UN. The UN has established two teams investigating humanitarian IHL abuses and violations in Yemen. And while we have all this overwhelming evidence and documentation and reports, they are all faced by deaf ears from the international community. And it seems there is a collective failure from the international community to pay attention to what is needed and to their legal obligation. And for example, ending their arms deals to parties to the conflict, or even rethinking how they are sending these weapons, what role they are playing in abuses in Yemen. So the international community has a huge responsibility, but also has a huge collective failure.

Reema Saleh: There was an interview that I think you did with Jadaliyya a few months ago, that I came across where you unpack the idea of why Western media often erroneously refers to Yemen as the forgotten war. Can you talk a bit about how Yemen was never remembered by the international community to be forgotten? Could you talk a little more about what this means and what we should take away from it?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. I would like to answer to that by going back to how the international media and in particular media in the US were feeling about Yemen when Khashoggi was killed. During that time, when Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, there were like this hype, and huge desire and willingness to investigate violations committed by Saudi Arabia at home and outside. And that included putting more scrutiny to what's going on in Yemen. And that was a reality check that Yemen did only matter because it was being seen through the Saudi lens. So Yemen was never a subject matter by itself. There has to be one reason, so we can pay attention to Yemen. There has to be another major event, and then we can look at Yemen. And also when there are other major events happening around the world, secretly, I always pray I hope nothing happened in Yemen during that time, because I know there will not be any media coverage. So for example, with all what was going on in Afghanistan, Yemen just slide to the end of the agenda, or even not even in the agenda of media coverage. I don't mean any disrespect to other tragedies in Afghanistan. And even before that it was in Syria or even to the heinous crime against Jamal Khashoggi, but it's just an interesting way of trying to compare how Yemen don't matter. And how it's really hard to get the media care about what's going on in Yemen. So today you have one challenge that I get, a lot of emails people asking me, "What more can we say about Yemen that hasn't been said before?"

Afrah Nasser: And I think it doesn't feel right, this question. Because look at your invitation, for example, you just invited me to, "Can you tell us about what's going on in Yemen?" So it's just so simple and easy, and it's heartbreaking how Yemen don't matter when it's facing the largest humanitarian crisis. It's just heartbreaking why Yemen don't matter when it's the poorest Arab nation where some of the world's richest countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE are infighting. So I think this should be like a very interesting angle to any journalist, any researcher, any scholar, and yet Yemen is just not even in the map. I'm not going to say it's forgotten, it just doesn't count. For me, it's just shocking, really. I mean, one way that we Yemenis think about this is that, because we are poor, because Yemen is poor, that is the main reason nobody cares about it. Even if someone shows solidarity to Yemen, we feel like, "Oh, thank you for being exception, and seeing a value and showing solidarity to us." But Yemen has a rich history just given an opportunity, it can be as rich as Saudi Arabia, as rich as the United Arab Emirates. So as we speak today, I can see all the bling bling in the UAE Expo 2020 event. And for me, it's disturbing seeing all this extravagance in the UAE while there is misery and pain in their neighboring country in Yemen, while the UAE is backing, some of the most abusive armed forces on the ground, it's just so disturbing. And I just wish there is a chance for Yemen to flourish outside this conflict.

Reema Saleh: The World Food Program has faced some major funding shortfalls this year. With Yemen being its biggest humanitarian operation, what does that mean for the future?

Afrah Nasser: I think the humanitarian crisis is the bigger than just the lack or decline in funding. As long as there is war profiteering and war economy that was created as a product of the conflict, we will continue to have this humanitarian crisis and no amount of humanitarian aid can fix the situation. So today, for example, you have major restrictions from parties to the conflict, the mobility of humanitarian operation personnel and goods within and outside Yemen is extremely difficult, and they are faced by several restrictions from authorities on the ground, and even the Saudi-led coalition as it controls the air base of Yemen. So without lifting those restrictions, no amount of humanitarian aid can fix the situation or make the humanitarian crisis go away. And then you have the war economy. And one, just one tiny aspect of it is the taxation system on the ground.

Afrah Nasser: So there are some tracks that go from east Yemen to south or north. They are being taxed by every point, by every authority that is controlling the different parts. So logistics are becoming more and more expensive. And sometimes they outweigh the humanitarian aid itself. So without dealing and addressing all these obstacles, I think we will continue to have humanitarian crisis. This is why we need accountability measures so we can address or mitigate the humanitarian crisis. It's just a dilemma. You have to rethink your humanitarian strategies in Yemen, given the violations and abuses and restrictions and obstruction of humanitarian aid.

Reema Saleh: So what will eventually need to be done to ensure accountability for these human rights violations when the war is ended?

Afrah Nasser: That will be a huge work for all human rights groups. If the war ends today, that means we have a lot of things to do. But meanwhile, we think that it's so important for Western states, states that are mentioned in the documentation of the UN groups and human rights groups. So we have today, the US, UK, France, Canada, they all have to suspend their arms deals that are going to the conflict in Yemen, going into the parties in the conflict, that are basically enabling the continuation of the conflict. Now, I remember how during Donald Trump, there was this narrative that we can't suspend our arms deal to Saudi Arabia because it's creating a lot of jobs and that will impact our own national economic make interests. So why I'm focusing about the arms deal is because I think this is the least thing that the international community can show that they have accountability, or they want to take the parties to the conflict accountable to what's going on or violations and abuses in Yemen.

Afrah Nasser: And if the state's only way of making money is out of the blood of innocent civilians in Yemen, I think they have a huge problem already. Arms deals are very specific demand that all human rights groups have been asking since the beginning of the conflict. And God bless his soul, when Jamal Khashoggi was killed, there were countries actually that started to suspend their arms deals. So you had Germany, for example, some countries in Scandinavia. So we've seen that this was doable before, so why we don't do it now? I think arms deals is one specific area that the international community can address the lack of accountability.

Reema Saleh: How do you remember Yemen before the civil war?

Afrah Nasser: I remember my college. I remember my school. I remember the nice sessions with families, the jokes. I remember generosity. It's just like everywhere you go. People are just so generous. Even relatives are generous to each other. Neighbors are generous to each other and the more I'm working on Yemen, the more I understand that generosity is fundamental part of Yemeni culture because of war, famine, and misery and pain. So Yemenis do understand what's like to be hungry, what does it feel to be hungry? So they're always generous with food. You might go to the most poor family and yet they will get out everything that they have and show hospitality and try to serve you the best what they have. So this I always remember. And I think the work cannot take that away also.

Reema Saleh: Can I ask what initially brought you to blogging and journalism and writing in general?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. I started writing in my journals when I was teenager and then that escalated to writing in local newspapers during my first years of college. And then when I finished college and I joined Yemen Observer, a newspaper in Sana'a, I started to blog also and put some writing in my blog. I've always been passionate about writing, but I think me focusing on writing about Yemen comes from the fact that I had Ethiopian origin. So half of my family are Ethiopians and the other Yemenis. In Ethiopia, I was typical like of all mixed races. In Ethiopia, I was looked as like, "Oh, she's Yemeni." And then in Yemen, I was like, "Oh, she's Ethiopian." But all I know is Yemen. My native language is Arabic. And I grew up in Sana'a and I've always felt I was from Sana'a. So I wanted to demonstrate or prove to the society that I was more Yemeni than any other Yemeni. So, this is why I started writing about Yemen.

Afrah Nasser: Maybe it was in English in the beginning because I felt that was the safe space, because I can speak Amharic as well. And then Arabic was also my native language, but I was being told that, "Oh, you're not Yemeni." So that felt I wasn't Arab also. And then English was somewhere that I chose it wasn't imposed on me or something. Yeah, that's how it all started.

Reema Saleh: Half my family is from Ethiopia as well.

Afrah Nasser: Oh, interesting.

Reema Saleh: Yeah. The other half is from Eritrea.

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. I mean, what's going on in Ethiopia and Eritrea tells you how some of these countries, their history is just full of war and conflicts. And it just makes you really wonder when will this end. But the fact that you're saying Ethiopia and Eritrea, all these neighbors they continue to migrate between each other. My grandfathers during the civil war in Yemen in the 60s, he immigrated to Ethiopia. And then when the conflict happen in Ethiopia during the 70s and 80s, my family, my parents came back to Yemen. That's going through one circle, I think.

Reema Saleh: Yeah. There's definitely a lot of moving back and forth. I have family that's moved between home and Dubai and Saudi, it's definitely... I feel like we're all tied together somehow.

Afrah Nasser: Exactly.

Reema Saleh: Can I ask you what your relationship with your homeland is like now that you're a journalist and the diaspora?

Afrah Nasser: Well, today I am a researcher. I'm not involved in journalism anymore, but I feel like I'm growing into like a global citizen. So, for example, something that I started to care a lot about is climate change or climate injustice, climate crisis, which is impacting everywhere. And COVID really also taught you how this world is a small place. So one virus went everywhere and impacted everywhere. And if one place is not safe, the other will not be safe. So that identity, I think, is becoming more and more clear to me, being global citizen. And I don't think of myself as someone in exile or even me working on Yemen, basically what I'm doing is connecting the dots between the other parts of the world and Yemen. So it doesn't mean I'm just Yemeni from Yemen and working on Yemen. No, I'm actually interested in what's going on everywhere. So the election in Germany, for example, and who will come next after Angela Merkel will definitely impact the arm sales industry, and how that will fuel the conflict in Yemen. And that just example. So I'm interested in everything that is global. And as a global citizen, I think we're far connected than we ever think.

Reema Saleh: So blogging can be a medium between journalism and activism in a way. So how do you think your independence allowed you to cover issues that went under reported?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. No, it's helped me a lot. I remember one friend in Sweden in 2011 when I first came to Sweden and I mentioned that I had a blog and then we were discussing things about Yemen. And I told him like, "maybe you can read a World Bank report instead of my blog." And then he turned to me and he told me like, "your blog is more credible to me than most of these institutions’ reports." And today I understand why he was saying that. I had so much freedom outside big institutions’ policies and the dos and don’ts and that freedom... I was just writing things that I thought mattered the most to me as someone Yemeni and to my friends, to my relatives. So I wanted to show Yemen from our perspective.

Afrah Nasser: And I think that when you really believe in your value, that's like the most revolutionized thing you can do. Because I didn't believe much of the international media coverage on Yemen and how sometimes - I'm not saying all the time - but they describe Yemen with just one focus. Which is like, for example, terrorism, and I thought Yemen was bigger than that.

Afrah Nasser: So I wanted to talk about all of that. So for example, terrorism. For me, poverty was the biggest terrorism for civilians in Yemen. Not al-Qaeda, or Daesh, and things like that, or the corruption from Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. How that really fueled terrorism that the international media is talking about. So, things like that, for me, just being genuine and truthful were very, very important. And I think that why my writing resonated to a lot of people.

Reema Saleh: Definitely. I think there's something really human in a lot of the stories you were writing at the time.

Afrah Nasser: It's not about being human. It's just I felt like we are not any less than any other nation. Yemen is important like Saudi is important, like the UAE. So I was just writing like that.

Reema Saleh: Yeah. So this is my last question. What inspires you to keep working and what brings you hope in these times?

Afrah Nasser: You see there is this saying, I forgot the name of the philosopher, but he says, "Optimist by the will, and pessimist by the intellect." And it feels like you have to have some sort of hope so you can continue doing what you're doing. Otherwise, there will be no point in the work that you do. And I think tyrannies really want us to have despair and just give up. I think that is what gives me motive to continue is just, I don't want to give tyrannies what they want and I think we need to take what's rightfully ours.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Afrah Nasser. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh. Special thanks to UC3P and The Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on The Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.



Root of Conflict


Social Cohesion After Conflict | Salma Mousa

Can intergroup contact build social cohesion after conflict? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Salma Mousa, a political scientist studying social cohesion after conflict and what policies can build trust between groups. She talks about her latest study on building social cohesion between Christian and Muslim youth soccer players in post-ISIS Iraq and the challenges to achieving peace between groups.

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema, and you’re listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts.

You’re listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world.

Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

In this episode, Aishwarya and Wafa speak with Dr. Salma Mousa, a political scientist studying social cohesion after conflict, and what policies can build trust between groups. She talks about her latest study on building social cohesion between Christian and Muslim youth soccer players in post-ISIS Iraq.

Dr. Salma Mousa: As someone who grew up in the Middle East and who was also an immigrant in Canada for a while, the question of how someone's social identity conditions so much of what happens in their life, and how other people treat them, and how they see themselves, was always something that was very top of mind for me. I noticed different situations or environments where my nationality mattered or my religion mattered, and other environments where it didn't matter at all.

And this was all happening against the backdrop of the sporadic violence, especially when I lived in Saudi Arabia, which was targeted based on sect and based on nationality. And so, being in that kind of environment you start to think, okay, so my identity seems to matter sometimes a lot, and other times, it doesn't matter at all.

And so, how can we get identity to matter less? Because the Middle East is not necessarily a place where these social identities have always existed, number one. And number two, these identities have not been things that have structured conflict. It's not necessarily the case that we have to keep killing each other for these socially constructed things. And it wasn't the case for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, for many ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

So, how can we get those things to stop being fault lines, given that there's nothing inherent in our culture that suggests that it has to be that way?

Wafa Eben Beri: Thank you so much. It's a very interesting point that you are bringing your personal perspective into that and your interests professionally. For our listeners who are not familiar with your work, can you tell us about your study that is titled Building Social Cohesion Between Christians and Muslims Through Soccer in Post-ISIS Iraq and what the main findings were?

Dr. Salma Mousa: Sure. So, the study that you referred to was a field experiment in Northern Iraq where I was able to set up a series of soccer leagues, and I was able to randomly assign amateur Christian soccer teams to either receive fellow Christian players or receive some Muslim players, and then they train and compete for a two-month period.

And what I found was being assigned to a mixed team made Christians more accepting and tolerant toward Muslims in terms of their behaviors, but not really toward the Muslims, more broadly. So, what I mean by that is, I found this distinction between how you treat people you know from an outgroup compared to how you treat strangers.

And so, I found that this contact within soccer leagues was really effective at building these local social ties and improving tolerant behaviors toward your teammates and other guys you met in the league, but it did not extend to Muslims more broadly outside of that environment.

So, for example, being assigned to a mixed soccer team did not make you more likely to visit Mosul, which is a big Muslim-dominated city about 40 minutes away from the study sites. So, this suggests that this theory of intergroup contact can be promising in building this very localized community level social cohesion, but it's not necessarily achieving its goal of building generalized social cohesion and prejudice reduction.

Wafa Eben Beri: That's a very interesting point, because, based on my experience in Israel and working with Jewish groups, I found the same finding. The findings showed that the group contact didn't affect the perception of the participant toward the individual from the other group, and less affects the perception toward the collective group represented by the participant.

For example, someone would say, "When I meet this Arab guy, he's very nice, but not all the Arabs are like that, and he's an exception." Could you tell us, how can we expand social cohesion to a more broad level, to take this interaction that has happened between the participant and the individuals to a more collective level?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, now I know I need to read your work because this sounds very relevant to what I'm looking at right now. And you highlight a really important issue, which is that these kinds of contact interventions, they aim not to just improve how you feel toward the one or two people who you meet, or who you're friends with, but to actually generalize those positive feelings toward the entire outgroup.

And if that generalization doesn't happen, if you don't update your beliefs about the entire group based on a handful of interactions, then the contact theory is really a failure. It's really trivial. It's nice to build some friendships here and there, but it's just not nearly scalable enough that this is something that we should necessarily be turning to, especially in conflict zones.

So, this question of how can you encourage the generalization of effects, I think this is an open question. Social psychologists point to a few factors that might help. One is typicality. So, you need to view the contact partners as typical, or representative in some way, in order for you to infer something about the entire group.

And actually, I do have some work on this looking at a Muslim soccer star in England, Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool. And long story short, we do find that when you prime people to think about his Muslim identity and that he's a practicing Muslim, it makes Liverpool supporters, the fans of the club, more likely to say that Islam is compatible with British values.

So, this link, emphasizing this link between that one person and the whole group can help facilitate that process, but there's still really a lot that we don't know about it. I mean, people can still exceptionalize a handful of individuals who they like and choose not to see them as representative. So, the question is, is someone really objectively ever typical or representative, or is that actually a function of prejudice, whether you choose to see them as exceptional or not.

And there's this other tension between being representative, but also not confirming stereotypes. So, your group identity should be salient, but it shouldn't be salient in any negative way. You shouldn't be doing any stereotype-confirming behaviors because that won't work. So, there's some tensions, I think, here in the social psychological literature that need exploring.

Aishwarya Raje: So, I'd love to hear more about how you looked at soccer specifically as the framework for your work on social cohesion. I mean, I'm a huge fan of professional soccer, and I'm a terrible player, but I'm a huge fan, I mean, millions of people around the world are. I mean, what do you think it is about the sport, or perhaps team sports in general, that can potentially take a group of people beyond just recreation and competition, and actually build deeper connections on a more human level?

Dr. Salma Mousa: I think there's a few different routes through which sports can build social cohesion. I can think of a few just off the top of my head. One is that team sports naturally fulfill a lot of the conditions laid out by the contact hypothesis.

So, contact across group lines is supposed to reduce prejudice when the contact involves cooperating for a common goal, when it's endorsed by authorities who people respect, and when you are on equal footing, so there's not necessarily a hierarchy or an unequal power status. So all those conditions really lend themselves very nicely to team sports.

There's also, I think, an argument to be made about creating another identity as being fans of the same team or players on the same team. And so, it highlights this common third identity that's shared between people. And so, it highlights commonalities in that way, rather than differences. So, those are just two ways that I think sports – whether you're playing or whether you're watching – can actually... can build some social cohesion or erode some of the group boundaries.


Wafa Eben Beri: During my work I saw a lot of different types of group contact that can yield sometimes different results related to social cohesion. What I mean by that, such as the difference between groups that meet through soccer or food, This is something that sometimes we find something in common. And the group that meet, for example, I have examples in Ireland or in Israel, in bilingual schools or through activism or volunteering together. Can you tell us more about what you think, and if there are different results related to this group contact with different purposes?

Dr. Salma Mousa: Yeah, absolutely. So, this is something that's important, right? What kinds of settings and environments produce contact under those ideal conditions? Team sports is one that lends itself naturally to this, but there are a few others as well.

To some extent, classrooms. You don't have so much the element of having a common goal, but there tends to be some cooperation, having equal footing, having an authority figure that endorses the interactions. So, classroom settings can be positive, and we do find that in the literature.

What's even stronger, most of the time, tends to be roommate assignments. So there, you don't necessarily have cooperation as much, but it's that kind of environment where you have these mini-cooperative interactions and generally a positive experience. And that is also something that we found that is actually effective at reducing prejudice.

Military conscription is another one, military training. So, again, it's the roommate mechanism, but really that fighting with each other and relying on each other seems to be really important. And so, if you want to extrapolate the commonalities across these different settings where we have seen positive effects, and looking at studies that have found negative effects of contact – and there are a few of those – I’d say one of the most important conditions is that you are not competing, that you are cooperating and not competing.

The degree of cooperation, it's a little unclear how much cooperation you need, but definitely the presence of active competition is almost always negative. So, I'd say that if we're starting to move toward an understanding of what are the necessary conditions, I would say that's as close to a necessary condition as we found.

Wafa Eben Beri: I have a follow-up question. You said about the negative results, when we put competition or we don't have a common goal between the interactions of the groups. Can you tell us in which way the results will be negative, how the results are being presented when it's negative? Is it that people become more prejudiced? Can you talk more about that?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, we don't have a lot of very, I say, solid work about this, but I think there are some plausible explanations for why competitive contact is bad. I think the most common sense one to me is that it highlights otherness.

So, if you're put in a situation where you feel that you need to come compete with this group, either for jobs or for scarce resources or even in a sports game, you start to view that person and their group as being opposed to you, necessarily. You are against them. They are different. We have no preferences in common. Our goals are diametrically opposed to each other.

And that, I think, just stresses the sense of otherness and difference, rather than what you want, which is the opposite, where you want to feel like you have some things in common. At least you should have a common goal, even if you have nothing else in common.

I think the other plausible explanation is that there are some interactions that come along with cooperating, like you have to discuss, you have to compromise, you have to make decisions together. And that process, that negotiation process, and just the micro-foundations of actually working together can reveal things about people's personality, can humanize them more. It opens up more of what we call “friendship potential,” which is something that has been found to be very key to contact.

This kind of one-sided exposure where you just see someone in the subway or something – that can actually cause a backlash effect – but you need some space for friendship potential, some conversation in a not so emotionally charged environment. And so, I say those two things where that competition can emphasize otherness and, at the same time, it has very low friendship potential.

Aishwarya Raje: I'd be curious to hear your observations about how you've seen social cohesion play out based on gender. Of course, the study that you did focused on creating soccer teams for young men, but in a lot of context, I think we see women being the social backbone for their families and communities. So, I'm curious as to how you see those dynamics play out in a post-conflict context.

Dr. Salma Mousa: I don't have that much to say about this only because we have such little research that I'm aware of that looks specifically at social cohesion-building strategies that target women specifically. But what I can speak about is my own experience working in Northern Iraq.

I initially wanted to actually have an intervention targeted at women and bringing women from Muslim and Christian groups together, and it became clear very quickly that the social norms in Northern Iraq were not really conducive to this. This is because there's this unofficial system where women are not really permitted to be out in public, and especially in areas with unfamiliar people if they don't have their brother or their husband with them.

So, you would need the permission of the husbands, or the brothers, or the dads in order to be in these new spaces where they're going to be mixing across group lines with people that are unknown or strangers from the out-group. And so, because of the difficulty of actually arranging that contact, I then decided to focus more on men.

And so, this, I think, is an important question of how should we target these kinds of interventions, and I think there is a case to be made that you want to target potentially norm changers or norm leaders when it comes to prejudice. And we should be doing more work to understand how social cohesion operates among women. But, at the same time, there is one benefit of targeting whoever the norm leaders are in society, often, it's men, in that you might actually accelerate some of the change potentially.

Wafa Eben Beri: Can you tell us how group context affects the general political situation or the leadership in the country and vice-versa?

Dr. Salma Mousa: This is the million-dollar question. We have a lot of tools at the grassroots level for building social cohesion. So, things like intergroup contact, empathy-building interventions or education, perspective-taking exercises, and they seem to work, under some conditions, at the grassroots level. But the question is, how are these things affecting the structural barriers to social cohesion?

There are reasons why groups are in conflict, or one group is explicitly being oppressed. And these kinds of grassroots interventions, they're great at building this community level social cohesion – and that's a good thing – but are they really going to address the structural roots of conflict that cause this situation in the first place? And I'm much more skeptical about that.

So, can things like contact overcome barriers to integration like residential segregation, like ethnic entrepreneurs or political entrepreneurs who start stoking tensions between groups? These kinds of more environment-level barriers to cohesion, I think, are much harder to overcome without policy tools.

I think the ideal recipe would be a mixture of both. I think you need stuff happening at the grassroots level and policies at the structural level to really build lasting and sustainable peace. One of the reasons, actually, why this is important, is that if you just do the policy-level intervention, and you don't have grassroots support at least, or acceptance of the intervention, it might not actually have a positive effect.

I'm thinking, for example, some east Asian countries where they actually have very progressive immigration policies, but on the ground, there was not acceptance by the host population. And they're like, “Oh, why are you giving preferential treatments to immigrants?” So, actually, it can go the other way. So, ideally, you need, I think, a mix of those two things, but how you aggregate up from the grassroots level to the policy level, I think, is still unclear.

Aishwarya Raje: And that's a really great segway into my next question, because I know another element of your research interest is migration policy and refugee resettlement and integration.

And I'm curious, would you say that this model of building sports teams between perhaps host populations and refugee populations could facilitate greater refugee integration into the host countries? And how translatable do you think this model is to contexts that are not necessarily post-conflict, but in contexts that are generally just lacking a lot of social cohesion?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, there are some reasons why the theory of change around social cohesion might be different in post-conflict societies and in recently post-violent societies.

I think the distrust towards strangers is higher. The averseness to risk is also higher. The lingering effects of personal trauma, psychological trauma, and community-level trauma is also very high. So, I think for all these reasons – and just baseline prejudice is probably high too. So, for all these reasons, you have a really hard case when you're going into recently post-conflict societies and trying to conduct these kinds of grassroots-level peace-building tools.

At the same time, I think there is a lot of overlap in what we do in peacetime and what can be done in post-conflict societies. So, for example, this idea of intergroup contact, positive contact actually reducing prejudice, it depends to the extent to which you see some of these cleavages in the West as being post-conflict or not, or actively antagonistic.


For me, it's not obvious. For example, if we're looking at law enforcement and minority groups in the US, that's an actively antagonistic situation in a lot of cases. So, I think a lot of these distinctions between post -conflict and peacetime or West and Global South are not necessarily that relevant when you start looking on a case-by-case basis where you do have this active antagonism and hostility, and oftentimes violence as well.

What I would just say is that any time you have that situation where it's active conflict, you are setting things up to be harder, where you have to take a lot more precautions, not least of which from an ethical perspective, before getting into these kinds of grassroots interventions and getting people together, who are not necessarily ready to be brought together yet. So, there's just this extra layer of precautions that need to be taken.

Wafa Eben Beri: How can your research findings can shape the policies in a country in post-conflict, and especially in the context of peacebuilding?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, I've done a few studies now looking specifically at this idea of contact. Generally, it looks like the effects are positive, but they're much more limited in post-conflict or active conflict settings.

So, what I would suggest to policy makers is any environment or space that you have control over where people are mixing or have the potential to mix across social lines, try to optimize those interactions so that they create the kind of ideal conditions for contact that we know to be generally positive. So, try to avoid competition, try to make the interactions recurring, not a one-time thing, try to get the endorsement of communal leaders who are respected. So, those spaces that you do have control over, optimize them for positive contact.

At the same time, I don't think you can rely only on grassroots tools alone for sustainable peace. So, we need to be addressing the structural roots of either oppression or intergroup conflict, depending on the setting. And so, we need to address things like residential segregation. That's causing people not to interact in the first place, for example. We need to address the kind of national rhetoric or the rhetoric of politicians that demonize certain groups.

So, you can't really just rely on the grassroots level. There has to be support at the policy level as well.

Wafa Eben Beri: Thank you so much.

Dr. Salma Mousa: That was really fun.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Salma Mousa. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh.

Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


Refugee Mental Health | Aimee Hilado

Refugee populations face unique challenges to mental health and overcoming trauma in resettlement. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Aimee Hilado, a clinical social worker and researcher specializing in immigrant and refugee mental health and Associate Professor of Social Work at Northeastern Illinois University. Dr. Hilado is the founder and director of the RefugeeOne Wellness Program, a mental health program established in 2011 for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in Illinois.

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema, and you’re listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You’re listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects.

In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

In this episode, Aishwarya and Marina speak with Aimee Hilado, a clinical social worker and researcher specializing in immigrant and refugee mental health.

Aishwarya Raje: My name is Aishwarya Raje, and I'm a graduate student at the Harris School of Policy where I'm also a fellow with the Pearson Institute. And on this episode of Root of Conflict, I'm joined by my classmate Marina Milaszewska to sit down with Dr. Aimee Hilado. Dr. Hilado is an expert on refugee and immigrant mental health. She's also an Associate Professor of Social Work at Northeastern Illinois University, and she's the founding clinical director of the RefugeeOne Wellness Program, which is a mental health program established in 2011 for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in Illinois. Dr. Hilado, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Thank you for having me.

Aishwarya Raje: So, just to dive right in, what led you to focus your career on mental health and wellness for conflict-affected populations and those who have experienced trauma, and why are these issues that should be prioritized when it comes to working with these populations?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I'm the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines. And so, thinking about how to navigate adjusting to life in a new country was really part of my upbringing, watching my parents navigating life in the US. Now, every immigrant story is very different, but there was something about that draw. That draw of understanding, “How do people adjust to life in a new country.” And as time had progressed, I realized that the nature of folks that are coming to the United States is because they have no choice, because they are forced to leave their home countries, that their experiences were unique. And that services in the field didn't adequately address some of the mental health issues that come when you are forcibly displaced.

And that really was what opened my eyes to this work. I'm a clinical social worker by training. I'm an academic researcher, as you said, an immigrant and refugee mental health and much of my career has really focused on how do we think about supporting the health and mental wellbeing of forcibly displaced immigrants and refugees who are in the United States, while elevating their stories to inform policies that are made that do directly impact those that we serve.

Aishwarya Raje: So, later today, you'll be presenting at an event here at Harris, which is organized by the Pearson Institute and by Rotary International, which is focused on evidence-based approaches to working with conflict-affected populations, which makes a lot of sense because we're here at Harris where our slogan is “Social impact down to a science”. So, can you speak to some of the evidence-based approaches that you use when working with these populations, and how do those approaches potentially change depending on the cultural context of the populations that you're working with?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: So, as part of my work, I started a mental health program for immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers called the RefugeeOne Wellness Program. This is a program that's nested in a larger refugee resettlement program, RefugeeOne, and we've been in operation since 2011. We've been resettling refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors from all over the world. And really for me, in thinking about how to effectively operate a program, we had to have a deep understanding of who we were serving.

And so, we integrated a lot of ongoing data collection methods to really get to the heart of what's the need: Who are we serving? What's their story, and what treatments are most effective? And so, we have been tracking what are the symptoms based on region of the world, length of time displaced, gender, age, level of education, because all of that directly impacts the treatment modalities that we use. And over time, in the eight years we've been doing this, some of it is just by what we do, what we learn while we're in the field, but also very intentional studies, descriptive studies, randomized controlled trials, to really understand and document services, needs, and impact.

And that's been part of the work of the Wellness Program. To illustrate, I think about some of the things that we just learned by surprise. When we were resettling refugees from Bhutan, from Southeast Asia, from Africa, we would do universal screening. I wanted that to be part of our programming because I wanted to remove the stigma of mental health. So, rather than say, “Okay, someone looks like they've got needs,” let's ask them, “Have you been sad? Have you had difficulty sleeping?” We said any adult that arrives is going to be asked questions about their health and wellbeing. We would ask you questions about your mood, about your appetite, about your sleep and your relationships with others.

And even with that data, we were able to see trends based on country of origin. How long were they displaced? Where were they displaced? And we used that to inform our treatment modalities. As we started to provide services, we realized that different communities responded to therapy very differently. I think therapy is very much a Western approach to addressing mental health problems and we'd have clients that would come to the first session and they would be supremely polite. And then they wouldn't come back to the next session. And we realized that the one-on-one, face-to-face was just too intense for them.

I would say generally, this was the case with our refugees and asylum seekers coming from Southeast Asia and from Africa, where culturally they're used to being in a collective, they're used to telling their story, their needs within a community-based kind of setting, within groups of people, not one-on-one with someone who's definitely not from their own community. But when it came to other communities, specifically those coming from the Middle East, from Syria and Iraq, what we noticed is that privacy was very important to them. That they weren't ready to share their needs, especially with a stranger who's not from the community. They didn't want to share that with others within their community. And so, we had to tailor their services.

So, what I'm describing is lessons learned that we've collected and tracked to really inform our modalities. Tested the impact of different treatment approaches, whether it's narrative approaches, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness practice, we've seen the level of effectiveness. We track our clients based on pretest and post-test to see is their symptom reduction around the areas that they struggle with most, with the hope of always moving them forward on that pathway to healing.

Marina Milaszewska: Hoda Katebi of Because We've Read and JooJoo Azad fashion blog utilizes economic empowerment to improve the refugee experience in Chicago. Her sewing factory in the Chicago area is called Blue Tin Production Co-op and employs immigrant and refugee women who may otherwise be barred from employment due to language or legal barriers. What do you think is the role of economics and personal finance in the mental health of refugees?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I think it's incredibly relevant that oftentimes, when we think about how people arrive into the United States, we think about their migration story and their story doesn't begin just when they arrive. We think about their experiences abroad, the time in which they are traveling to their next destination, whether that's a week, whether that is decades. And then we think about their experiences upon entering the United States.

For those that we're serving, and I think about the RefugeeWellness program, and I think of who we're serving right now, many of them have been displaced on average 17 to 20 years. And so, when you think about that time, just waiting for a resolution to come to the United States, when they come here, the first priority for them is not to talk about mental health. It's about getting the job. It's about learning the language and rebuilding their lives because no matter where our refugees are coming from around the world, the United States is still a beacon of hope.

They hear about the American Dream, and that is a priority for them. We also know that the policies, the funding that's allocated to US refugees, the State Department, is really not enough. That there is a housing allocation that really is just about three months of housing funds, where there is an expectation that new arrivals are going to be able to become self-sufficient in a very short period of time. And so, there is that driving force to stabilize themselves with jobs, stabilize the economics, and so, it is so critical.

We are lucky that we are in a time where there are more employment opportunities. We have, in the resettlement program, specific services, where we have employment staff that work with local companies, hotels, factories, the airport services, to make sure that they can serve as liaison for those that maybe had been farmers in their own home countries. Because really, the stress of not being able to put food on the table, the stress of not being able to pay the rent is overwhelming and it actually takes priority before they start talking about previous past trauma symptoms. It's in the here and now, and that's relevant survival. I think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. We're not going to get them to talk about past trauma if they're worried about their most basic needs being met. So, very critical.

Aishwarya Raje: Just going back a little bit to what you were saying about the different cultural context that you work with: in addition to managing personal finance and mental health, given the gender breakdown of the populations that you work with, what do you see as some of the unique challenges that women face? Whether they're trying to find employment or accessing mental health services or being a young mother, what are some of the challenges and maybe automatic obstacles that some of the women that you've worked with face?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Majority of our arrivals are women and children. When we think about those that are forcibly displaced, they tend to be the most vulnerable. And so, in terms of immediate challenges, we've been resettling over the last eight years very large families where dual income is critically important. Those coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, we've got a lot of single mothers. And what's hard in the current workplace is that we don't have standard shifts, second shift, third shift that operate from afternoon to late evening. We have to balance transportation that's available. Standard ordinary typical daycare programs that run from 7 to 6 oftentimes don't fit with the schedule of those that are seeking employment now. And the costs are also quite high for high quality childcare.

So, that's a barrier that's there, but we address that barrier by working with the community. Oftentimes we pair families together so that one parent, one family can watch children while another person takes a shift so that we can work it around some of those barriers so that it doesn't keep people from being able to get a job and to be able to provide for their families.

One of the trends that we've seen is that actually women are finding an easier time getting a job because especially during the summer months, even in the winter months, there's a lot of work around hospitality, and oftentimes they're looking for female employees. Women are not always seen as the viable candidate for factory jobs. It's a lot of hard labor. The challenge with that is potentially changing family dynamics. What happens when in cultures where the women never worked before, now they are the breadwinner? What's the power dynamic that we need to address in the family system as a result of that?

So, I think the challenges look different. They cut across ethnic groups, but in the spirit of looking for gainful employment and becoming self-sufficient, these are challenges, real challenges that directly impact how families function, how individuals function, and also a cumulative impact and the influence on mental wellbeing.

Marina Milaszewska: That's so fascinating how those roles are possibly getting flipped right now. So, for any students who are interested in doing some of the work that you are doing or similar with refugees and immigrants placing a focus on mental health and wellness, what do you think are some important experiences to grasp outside the classroom?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I would say getting to know the communities, because I've shared a number of the arrivals that are coming to the United States and they're incredibly diverse. And with each community, there are just different belief systems, different cultural traditions, different experiences. And so, to really be able to do this work well, we have to get to the heart of the uniqueness of each family.

I think generalizations are always helpful, but really starting where clients are and recognizing the uniqueness of their immigration story and their experiences is really at the heart of being able to do this work well. I think culture humility is a huge part of what we do. Recognizing that we don't know all the answers, and we've got to be ready to apologize and ask to learn and become partners in this work and recognizing that the people that we serve, they're incredibly resilient. I think when we oftentimes talk about conflict afflicted people, vulnerable populations, forcibly displaced populations, we put them into a box of having needs that they're at greater risk, that we need to pity them in some way.

And what I will say, the stories that I get to hear in therapy, the privilege of being able to serve these populations, they're so incredibly resilient. That they speak 5 to 10 languages in some cases where many of us probably speak only one to two, if we're lucky. That they have overcome insurmountable challenges and yet they're strong, and they're positive, and they're hopeful. And I think we just can't lose sight of the fact that they bring inherent strengths to our communities. And so, what we do in terms of our work with them is really just support them on that pathway to really thriving in a new country.

Marina Milaszewska: As you just mentioned, refugees face trauma due to loss of familiarity in space, place, routines, and family. When you are working with refugees and immigrants as a mental health practitioner, how do you take care of your own mental health?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Really good discipline. I think that secondary trauma is not something we talk about enough for immigrant and refugee mental health providers. That, to do our work well, we have to be able to be vulnerable and to take in the stories, but there's always a cost to that. And so, for me, it's really putting self-care as a high priority. To not wait to when I start to feel burnt out to the point that I'm not finding joy in the work. To be disciplined in making connection, to reflect on all the gains, to be able to seek services, my own therapy services, reflective supervision, to process what I'm seeing in the field, because really it is about sustaining yourself in the hard work, that's so incredibly important.

For students in the social work program in which I teach, that's also one of the lessons that we emphasize. Self-care, and even more so than that, a focus on mindfulness, that mindfulness is gaining quite a bit of attention, not only as an effective treatment modality for trauma-experienced populations, but for the professionals that are serving them. Learning how to quiet your mind so that you're less reactive and more responsive. I think that's something that's a skill that all of us need have, and certainly part of my ongoing practice so that I can be in the field for as long as I have been.

Aishwarya Raje: And we couldn't let you go without asking a public policy question. So, given the relatively resistant rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration towards refugees, immigrants, we're seeing things like Muslim ban and families being separated at the border. What do you see, especially gearing up for the 2020 presidential election, as the biggest policy challenges facing the issues that you work on?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Unfortunately, there are consequences to the anti-immigrant heated rhetoric out there, that there are populations that absolutely feel vulnerable as a result of the policies. And so, one of the charges we've put forward to clinicians and all of those that are advocates for immigrants and refugees is to tell the story. Because I think that oftentimes, we don't have an opportunity to control the narrative, that the narrative that's being spewed is one with a lot of hateful rhetoric.

And so, one of the things that we focused on at RefugeeOne is to show the positive side of what immigrants and refugees bring to the community. How they contribute to the economy, how they contribute to relationships, how they contribute to our schools. And the hope is that as we continue to spread this information that, that creeps up into the policy discussion, that they're not seen as a liability, they're not seen as a threat, but they're seen as contributing members of society that pay taxes. They want to rebuild their lives with dignity and safety, and that hopefully the policies reflect the wonderful contributions that they're making to our communities every single day.

Aishwarya Raje: Well, thank you so much Dr. Hilado for joining us and for all the incredible work you're doing.

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Thank you.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter